MIND’s Lead Mathematician and Product Director Brandon Smith has been out on the road over the past several months, holding MathMINDs Family Nights around the country. These events featured both the existing MathMINDs Games, as well as some activities that are currently in development. Brandon shared with us how his recent experiences are informing the next wave of MathMINDs Games, as well as MIND’s ongoing work on engaging families.
We kicked off an intensive week of MathMINDs outreach in Miami, FL. MathMINDs focuses on games that are generally accessible and desirable for multiple age ranges, which is why adults and kids love playing together. To really put this to the test, we started at a middle school of all places—in grades where it's been historically challenging to engage students in mathematics.
We played various MathMINDs games, including South of the Sahara, with two different classes—each timed for over an hour. We had to kick the kids off of the games. In addition to South of the Sahara, we tested some of our newest works in progress: new storybook games. One of the games is designed for learners as young as four years old to play with their parents.
How’d it work on middle schoolers? Like gangbusters. The students dove right in and played each game for at least 20 minutes. Some of them were still playing when the school bell rang after 35 minutes!
One teacher asked for some help with adding and subtracting integers—those pesky negations and subtractions. So, before we left, we pulled up ST Math and I led a 45-minute interactive lesson on the difficult 7th grade topic. The teacher said it was a lesson she’ll never forget.
Leaving immediately from the school, we went to a family STEM night at a local school district. They struggled to find any good “M” in STEM, so we offered to fill the void with MathMINDs. We ran the same games as in middle school, but now with families.
We quickly saw the same early learning prototypes engage families like it did the middle schoolers. Our section got so busy that several local high schoolers volunteered to help. We were outside and daylight was fading. The automatic lights were fairly dim, but kids and parents stayed engaged until the very end. Even despite the donuts and popcorn being next to us.
Over the next two days, we engaged with teachers across the state at the Florida Council for Teachers of Mathematics (FCTM) 2019 annual conference. Math anxiety isn’t just for kids and parents. Teachers often find mathematics challenging and experience frustration with the subject. We need to give them chances for positive interactions with math too!
It was immediately on to Massachusetts for Mass STEM Week. The week started with MathMINDs and the New England Aquarium joining forces for a morning session on creative problem-solving and mathematics. We then went to back-to-back-to-back MathMINDs Family Nights around Massachusetts.
At our MathMINDs Family Nights, we focused on South of the Sahara and our two brand new storybook games designed for families of students down to four years old. It was a hit!
This was incredibly heart-warming to see. It’s late at night. The sun has already set. Families just finished pizza and salad. There are 100 or more people in a gym or cafeteria. It’s noisy and chaotic. Would the kids even focus for a minute? Maybe 5 or 10 minutes if we are lucky?
Four-year-olds routinely interacted for 45 minutes, staying engaged and challenged nonstop. The parents didn’t have a free ride, they had to stay focused as well. Just because young ones can play, doesn’t mean it’s trivial. They challenge and delight middle schools and adults. When we design for what makes us the same, we find that barriers start to fade away—including age.
It’s not enough to close the equity and access gaps by giving students access to experiences. We must fundamentally engage in the right experiences. Otherwise, we end up perpetuating the fears and frustrations we currently see in math.
We wrapped up our whirlwind week with a family night in Connecticut. Before the event, a grandfather anxiously walked up to me. “These games aren’t hard are they? I was never good at math, but I want my grandkids to have a good time. I can’t do the hard stuff.” I reassured him and gave him a game box.
At the end of the night, I asked him how it went. He said “It was really fun. Much better than I expected. They were hard, but I actually had fun. Thank you.” Curiously, it was this grandfather, not his grandchildren, carrying the box under his arm as they walked out.
These experiences not only positively impact our societal relationship with mathematics, they are ongoing opportunities for continuous improvement. We use any and every opportunity with families to learn. Not only are we making major improvements to our new R&D games based on what we saw, we gain insight for making existing games better. These enhancements are automatically built in every time we restock our supply.
Our families deserve more than just a product that markets well. They deserve ever-increasingly great experiences. All families are worth our best. The societal change we seek doesn’t happen with just any old game, nor any one best-game-ever. There’s a critical mass in the number of experiences we need to have in order to turn our negative identities around math into lasting positive ones. I suspect this critical mass will be a career-long (or longer) endeavor. MathMINDs is just at the beginning. Just wait ‘til you see what’s next.
One of those projects is putting kids in the driver’s seat as they have a rare chance to combine creative expression and mathematics in a meaningful way.
We have been testing out a variety of math maker projects designed to be fun and easy to implement for a teacher new to the projects, but also with plenty of depth for those who’ve ran a project or two before.
Our desire is for all students to have memorable experiences in which they put forth effort creating something mathematical they are proud of and that others actively use in front of them. This is not only deeply rewarding, it models how some of the worlds most challenging problems are solved and what entrepreneurs do day in and day out.
Just before the break, we wrapped up testing with 36 fourth graders at a southern California elementary school. This is the most recent round of testing in what has been, to-date, a two-year MathMINDs R&D project.
The highlight of the experience was a young math maker. He was asked, “How does it feel to see something you made being used by other people right in front of you?” I heard an enthusiastic, "Good! It’s amazing. This makes me feel like I’m a real person.”
Mathematics, for that young student, is now a part of what it feels like to know math as a natural and important part of life. I can’t wait until more students have this same opportunity! This, to me, is what closing the experience gap looks like. When mathematics is truly for all students, the experience gap will be closed and all the other gaps won’t stand a chance.
This is why MathMINDs works so hard to do what it does, and there is much more to do!
The current math maker projects, based on MathMINDs Games, will be out in the fall.
Brandon Smith is the Lead Mathematician at MIND Research Institute. He is the resident expert on mathematics in the ST Math software and MathMINDs programming. A collegiate academic, he couldn't pass up the chance to work at MIND to help make math fun, engaging, and tantalizing.