SIAMUW Reaches Out with Math Fair

October 18, 2011

Under the watchful eye of volunteer Matt Williams, a team of 4th graders estimate the gravitational constant by rolling marbles down an inclined plane.
Nicholas Cain

What happens when you combine the mathematical expertise of 15 Applied Mathematics graduate students with the enthusiasm and energy of 200 elementary school students? Volunteers from the University of Washington, and the students of Lockwood Elementary School in Bothell, Washington, found the answer first-hand this year, when the UW Student Chapter of SIAM, with financial support from the NSF GK–12 Program, started a new educational outreach program called the SIAMUW Math Fair.

Topics for the two fairs, one winter and one spring, were limited only by the imaginations of the graduate student volunteers. To begin the planning, two representatives of the SIAMUW chapter leadership (Nicholas Cain and Lisa Bishop) took a trip to Lockwood, where they met with teacher leader Kathy Coyne to discuss how to integrate their ideas for the Math Fair with the wants and needs of the classroom. This discussion led to the overall plan of classroom-relevant math lessons, combined with themes from the research fields of the graduate students--scaled back to an appropriate level, while still remaining realistic.

At the weekly chapter meetings, members brainstormed, considering topics from their research areas (including computational neuroscience, mode-locked lasers, mathematical ecology) that might be turned into activities for students. Transforming these technical topics into elementary school activities was perhaps the most challenging aspect of the whole fair. Then again, we have all had to explain our research to friends and family at some point, right? Our main guide was keeping an eye on the kinds of activities that grabbed the imagination of the students, so that they can be incorporated into the next fair.

For example, one of the activities used a laser as a tool for measuring the height of the basketball hoop in the school gym. This particular activity, part of the Winter Math Fair, was designed in response to enormous interest among the students on hearing that one of the volunteers was studying mode-locked lasers. A laser pointer was shined from the floor to the hoop, and a yardstick was used to measure the height of the beam at an intermediate point. This allowed the students to approximate the hoop height using the concept of similar triangles from geometry. After measuring the necessary distances, volunteers helped the students through a worksheet connecting the physical distances they measured with the abstract equations, to get the final estimate.

By combining novel experiments, mathematical concepts and calculations, and a great group of talented and enthusiastic volunteers, the SIAMUW chapter was able to make clear to the students how much math there really is in the world around us. But sometimes, it is just by providing inspiration that mentors can make an impact. A thank-you letter from a 4th-grade student named Grace read, "Thanks soooo much for coming to our school again! I was excited to be joining in on math with real scientists!" Many of the volunteers agreed that it was great to interact with elementary students, inspire them, and become role models in their communities. Matt Williams (pictured in the accompanying photo) summed up the shared perspective: "It was nice to get a chance to show kids the kinds of things we do in our research, and that there is more to math than what you learn out of a book."

So how hard was it to make the Math Fair a reality? The helping hands of the Lockwood Elementary School administrators, teachers, and parent science-docents made light work of the logistical details needed to keep the learning focused. Some of the activities required more volunteer hands on deck than others. For "Grocery Store Math," volunteers were needed to help individual students select potentially healthy items in a grocery store by computing sugar totals from food labels. Others, like the "Acid/Base Epidemiology" experiment, where the spread of germs was simulated by an entire class of students mixing cups of vinegar and water, can be overseen by a single volunteer, and thus scaled to fit the logistics of the fair.

One of the main goals for the Math Fair was to make it into a self-sustaining chapter activity that could be shared with other interested organizations. As the leadership of the student chapter changes for the coming year, hopes are high that we can continue this program and bring mathematical enthusiasm (maththusiasm!) to young minds for another year. It doesn't hurt that both faculties---the University of Washington Department of Applied Mathematics and the Lockwood Elementary School teachers---have embraced this strengthening of the greater Seattle mathematics community.

Details about how to design and run a Math Fair in your community, as well as lots of ideas for activities, can be found at the SIAMUW Chapter website:

Nicholas Cain is a graduate student in the Department of Applied Mathematics at the University of Washington.

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