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Math Fest Adds up to Fun for 500 Students and Teachers at UHEvent Comes to Houston for First Time and Strives to Spur Math Circles

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March 9, 2011-Houston-
Every time we enter a credit card number on the Web, take pictures with a digital camera or watch a DVD, we’re enjoying technology that could not exist without mathematics. The math that underlies these capabilities will be the focus of a free festival open to the public at the University of Houston (UH) March 19 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in Farish Hall on the west side of campus.

Sixty top mathematicians from across the United States will lead the Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival for 500 students and teachers from kindergarten through 12th grades. In its fourth year and first time in Houston, the event will offer intriguing puzzles, problems and activities designed to share the wonder of math with students and teachers.

More than a dozen activities are planned to facilitate “fun with math” at the festival, including the reassembling of a dissection puzzle called the Soma cube that was invented during a 1933 lecture on quantum mechanics, the ancient art of origami that folds paper into shapes representing various objects and a logic puzzle similar to Sudoku called KenKen. In addition to the large collection of puzzles, organizers will have participants attempt to build a large mathematical sculpture and organize a mathematical dance.

Of the festival’s many engaging presenters, one who is particularly noteworthy is Vi Hart, a well-known young figure in math who touts herself as a “mathemusician.” Featured recently in the New York Times for her unique efforts to “make math cool,” Hart has a series of popular YouTube videos with hits that number in the six figures. For some of her work, visit http://vihart.com/everything/.

“Our hope is that this festival will help launch several permanent math circles in the Houston area,” said Jeff Morgan, professor and chair of UH’s department of mathematics. “It’s common for groups of people to get together to play softball for fun, so why not do the same thing for math? Math circles are fairly common in some countries, and there are now 80 math circles in the United States. We would like to see that grow to 800 circles, and Houston is a large metropolitan area not currently served by one, so we hope to change this.”

Designed for students who enjoy mathematics and seek to be challenged by topics outside most school curriculums, math circles emphasize group discussion, open-ended problem solving and interaction with working mathematicians. Goals are to get pre-college students excited about math and help them develop a passion for it.

In fact, the annual meeting of the National Association of Math Circles is running in conjunction with the festival. Held March 18-20 on the UH campus, the workshop will bring people together who have experience in running math circles with those who wish to start one. Sample circle sessions will be open to the public that Saturday and teams of people from the workshop also will assist in coordinating the sessions and activities for the students and teachers at the festival. For more information on the math circles three-day symposium, visit http://www.msri.org/web/msri/scientific/workshops/show/-/event/Wm562.

A program of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, the festival previously has been held in such locations as Google Headquarters, the Pixar Animation Studios, the University of California and Stanford University. The event is named for Julia Robinson, who helped solve one of the best known problems in mathematics and gained fame at a time when there were relatively few women working as mathematicians. Specifically, she made significant contributions to the solution of Hilbert’s 10th problem that helped to motivate the theory of computability and influenced the way computer programs are now written.

Festival sponsors are the desJardins/Blachman Fund, S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation, Mathematical Sciences Research Institute and UH. Participants are encouraged to register by March 14 at https://hosted.msri.org/jrmf/houston/register.

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