By Roycemore Upper Schooler Daria Chudnovsky
While talking to a family friend, Alexander Fridman, director of the Nyheim Plasma Institute in Drexel University, I asked him which school subject develops the brain, increases creativity, open-mindedness, and overall prepares kids for an interesting and challenging profession in their future. He replied saying that no subject accomplishes any of those things as much as solving math olympiad problems. So when coming up with an idea for my 2018 JST (January Short Term) project, I thought back on what Dr. Fridman said and decided to investigate the impact of these problems myself. The Math Kangaroo Competition best fit into my idea since the competition occurs after JST and it is unique in the way that it is based on logical and creative-thinking math problems far more than any other math competitions.
The initial goals for my project were to find a way to inspire students and to introduce new methods for the development of problem solving creativity. Kids are most interested in things that they are successful in. This is why I arranged a placement test for lower and middle schoolers and invited the students that performed well to take part in my project. At first, I divided the students up into competition level groups; but then I rearranged the groups according to their motivation, since this formed smaller and more focused groups. My plan included the kids taking a full practice test at the end of every week, after which we went over the problems that were most complicated and challenging for them. This, indeed, turned out to be a very effective approach and many students improved with every test they did. I started the first week out with fun and challenging math games that were supposed to start getting the kids to think creatively and prepare them for the many visualization problems on the test. They enjoyed it immensely. However, when I changed our format and decided to move on to solving problems from Math Kangaroo tests from previous years, the kids enjoyed that just as much as they enjoyed the games. I was very impressed with this since they were genuinely excited to solve these math problems and that is exactly what I was hoping to see in my project. “I enjoyed the hard math problems and the brain puzzles,” said third grader Brendon.
To best prepare students for the competition, I looked at numerous tests from previous years and figured out three major themes that all the problems fit under. The themes were visualization problems, arithmetic problems, and algebraic problems. Each week, I concentrated on one of these themes and the kids solved tons of problems from the current theme. Day-to-day problem solving varied in many ways. Some days, I broke up the kids into teams and they competed by solving the problems in their groups. The competition format motivated them to explore new ways of solving that are more concise and logical. Other days, I would make each kid choose a few problems they knew how to solve and have them present each problem to the rest of the students. Explaining problems helped kids understand the problems better themselves, as well as show the other students alternate methods of solving than their own. Fourth grader Sophia said, “It was challenging, but…in a good way, I guess. I liked the way the other kids explained the problems so I could understand better.” I would, of course, jump in with my solution if the kids felt troubled with certain problems.
I definitely had many memorable and favorite moments in these past few weeks. One day, my three third graders were having a very unfocused day and couldn’t focus on their practice test. So I told them if they would quiet down and concentrate on their test and try their best, I would bring them a treat the next day. They all did very well on the test! Another one of my favorite moments was when third grader Benjamin came up to me at lunch and asked when we will be doing Math Kangaroo problems that day. I was very happy with the amount of enthusiasm these kids had for math.
I felt like this was one of the best experiences of my life. I improved my teaching skills over the weeks enormously and I achieved my goals of inspiring students and helping them develop new methods of problem solving. I don’t know what I would like to do in life yet, but I am sure that this project has inspired me, as much as the kids, and perhaps moved me closer to math and even the teaching aspect of it. I know that the kids enjoyed these past couple of weeks as well and entered a new world that they have never experienced before. Nino, a seventh grader, said, “It was really fun doing this, I learned how to think differently, and Daria was a great teacher.” I want to thank Ms. Carson, Roycemore School’s Upper School math teacher, as well as my project director, for taking up this challenge with me and giving me lots of advice along the way to make me a better teacher and to help me reach my goals. I really couldn’t have done it without her. I would also like to thank Roycemore School for giving me this wonderful opportunity and all of the teachers that went out of their way to help me work with the kids and make my project happen. It was really a wonderful experience for me and the kids, and I wish them luck at the competition on March 15th!