By Matt Morrison
7:14 PM PDT, August 5, 2014
Try selling this to typical school-age kids as a fun family outing on a warm summer day: Let's go do some math!
Ironically, no sales pitch seemed necessary to draw the nearly 4,000 visitors to the inaugural Math Fair: At the Square Root of Fun, held on the UC Irvine campus Saturday.
The first-of-its-kind event at the UCI Bren Center was presented free of charge by the MIND Research Institute. The Orange County nonprofit, founded in 1998, is dedicated to improving math and science education in schools and stirring student interest in the subjects through interactive methods.
The math fair is an extension of the institute's Spatial-Temporal (ST) math software program, which is being used by more than 110,000 students in Orange County schools and close to 700,000 students in 38 states, according to MIND Chairman John Phelan.
"Anybody can walk up and interact with it regardless of your background, regardless of your culture, regardless of your language skills," Phelan said. "It's a tremendous product."
"It's our attempt to break out of the classroom," said Matthew Peterson, the 42-year-old CEO and co-founder of the MIND Research Institute. "We want to help fix math education. We want [students] to love math and we want them to solve difficult problems."
Dozens of hands-on exhibits at the fair used progressive math concepts to stimulate young minds — from pre-kindergarten to middle school students. Toddlers assembled mazes on a magnetic wall and dropped marbles through them for lessons on geometry and gravity. The Math Mystery Theater engaged audiences in a problem-solving play. Older students created game concepts on iPads.
"It's definitely helping them in improving the concepts by visualizing things," said Murthy Bevarakonda, one of 300 fair volunteers. "That way they can quickly learn and expand their knowledge." The engineering sales executive from Cisco Systems brought along his 8-year-old daughter and a friend.
Fourth-grade teacher Jon Pivernetz visited the event with his wife and 6-year-old son.
"As a teacher I've used some of the mind institute software, but to see it used in the home as a parent this past year is really extraordinary," he said.
Corporate sponsors of the event said the math fair and use of the ST software are examples of educators taking action to help the U.S. rise in the global ranks of math and science education.
"The fun part of math is really the application. For so many years, we have taught too much rote memory," said Marian Bergeson, a former state legislator from Newport Beach who also served as California secretary of education from 1996 to 1999. "There are countries that are doing far better in math, and actually they're utilizing a lot of the principles that we have with the MIND Research."
Peterson envisions the math fair growing as a popular complement to the ST software, which the MIND Research Institute expects will double in distribution within three years.
"People here are walking away feeling energized about math," he said. "So I think we're making it happen."