Numbers game: America's struggle to make math fun

Wed Apr 11, 2012 3:25pm EDT
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By Stephanie Simon

(Reuters) - Pity poor math.

In the American drive to boost science and math education, it's science that has all the kid-friendly sizzle: Robots and roller coasters, foaming chemical reactions, marshmallow air cannons.

Math has... well, numbers.

"America has a cultural problem with math. It's the subject, more than any other, that we as a country love to hate," said Glen Whitney, a passionate mathematician who worked for years developing algorithms for hedge funds. "We don't see it as dynamic. It's rote and boring and done by dead Greek guys a thousand years ago."

A brave group of educators and entrepreneurs think they can change that. With games and competitions, museums and traveling road shows - and a strategic sprinkling of celebrities - they aim to make math engaging, exciting and even fun.

The inaugural Lure of the Labyrinth tournament, designed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, challenges kids to navigate an online monster lair by solving math and logic puzzles. Top scorers in the competition, which kicked off this month, can win tablet computers.

DimensionU, an online game company, this week launched another national tournament, DU the Math, to encourage kids to play its free math games. Top players can win a personal music lesson from teen pop star Greyson Chance, a day with the hit band Mindless Behavior or a star-studded rock concert in their hometown -- all prizes deliberately chosen, company spokesman Tom Schuyler said, "to make math cool."

Perhaps the most ambitious effort to give math some sparkle comes from Whitney, the hedge-fund mathematician. He has raised $22 million to build a Museum of Mathematics, due to open this fall in New York City.   Continued...

Catherine Berent, 9, rides a square wheeled tricycle in the Math Midway exhibit at the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery in Dayton, Ohio, April 10, 2012. Embarrassed by the dismal performance of U.S. students on international math exams, entrepreneurs and educators are launching drives to make math fun, engaging, and exciting. REUTERS/Skip Peterson