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How to Organize a Math Fair
There is more to mathematics than letters of the alphabet. This month, I and my colleagues decided to organize our first Math Fair for our classes. Math Fairs are one way to get students away from their textbooks for a bit and into the actual fun, problem-solving activities of real math. Students choose a math puzzle or problem, work in teams to come up with a solution, and finally put their puzzle on display and challenge others to also find the solution. It is similar to a science fair but instead of a science experiment on display, it is a challenging mathematics puzzle. Each display consists of a poster to describe the problem along with manipulatives for the visitors to use.
For those interested in trying out this process, I have included all the necessary forms, rubrics and websites to get you off to a quick start.
The first step in holding a Math Fair is to find suitable problems for each student team. There are at least a couple of good puzzle sources online. The biggest group can be found at http://galileo.org/math/puzzles.html If you have problems loading the page, just drop the .html off the end and you will get a directory of the puzzle list. The rest of the Galileo site is also worth exploring for all math teachers. A second source, but much smaller, is http://www.mathfair.com/puzzles.html.
It may concern some teachers that there are no solutions online for either of these puzzle sets. This way, it is impossible for students to find the solutions online; they need to use their brains! Of course, this means that you, as a teacher, also do not have any answers available. You have to leave it up to them to come up with the solution and merely act as a guide to help them on their way. If you want to have all the answers before they do, good luck!
Some problems are much more challenging than others. We provided computer time for each class on the websites to check out the available puzzles and then decide on which one they wanted to pursue. For the most part, students chose puzzles that were appropriate to their ability. No two teams could have the same puzzle in the same class. There are puzzles that are appropriate for all levels of students in all grade levels. If a team chose a puzzle that was much too easy for their ability, we made them find a more challenging one.
We provided one class period for students to come up with a solution to their chosen problem. Many would take more than one period to complete but at least this gave them a good start on focusing on the problem. They had to complete the solution on their own time. The first thing they had to hand in as far as this project was concerned was a well-written explanation of their solution. It could be a trial and error answer or an actual mathematical formula. It is not really important if every aspect of the solution is covered, what is important is the process of trying to discover the answer. It was very interesting to see students working together, unknowingly having real math discussions, while trying to come up with an answer. Kids don’t really think of puzzles as math!
Each team had to make an appropriate display. This year, because it was our first attempt, we decided to keep the displays fairly simple. Each team had to make a poster which included the title, a good description of the problem, and a clear question that could be understood and attempted by visitors to the fair. Along with the posters, each team had to make, or include, some sort of manipulative that could be used to help solve the puzzle. There had to be a hands-on activity for each one.
We were lucky enough to have a dedicated room for this event so it was very easy to set up, even though we had to change the display each block. There ended up being three to four classes displaying their puzzles at a time. Next time, we will attempt to find a big enough space that we can set everything up for the day, instead of tearing down and setting up again each block.
Each team had their poster on the wall behind them with a small table in front for their manipulatives. They also had a form to record the visitors to their table. Each individual student was given a “passport” that included all the puzzles in the room for that time period. One student manned the booth and the other circulated and tried the other students’ problems. Partway through the class, they switched so each had a chance to roam around. If a student solved a puzzle, it was signed off on their “passport”. The goal was to try as many puzzles as possible during the period.
The project can be assessed from many angles. There is a great Math Fair rubric available at Mathfair.com and another at Galileo.org to give you a couple of head starts. We gave marks for the solution, the poster, manipulatives, and participation at the actual fair, among other things. Some students are much better artistically than others and some are better mathematicians! Hopefully it all balanced out in the end.
For our first attempt, the fair went really well. Most students used the class time effectively to design their posters and come up with a solution. During the fair itself, there was lots of great discussion going on at all the booths and many teacher s that could drop in during the day also got into it! Students loved it when others couldn’t solve their puzzles but also enjoyed it when they came up with solutions. They seemed to take pleasure in explaining and helping out when they could. All in all, it was very successful.
Next time, we will have some examples of good displays, which will make it easier for the second round of kids that do this. For this first time, many students couldn’t quite picture what this Math Fair was all about. Now they have been through it once, I think we will see nicer displays and better manipulatives the next time.
This was my first time doing something like this in Math. I would highly recommend it to any teacher as a way to get students away from traditional mathematics for awhile and show them what real problem-solving is all about.