By: Nancy Blachman

I founded the Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival so that others could have fun exploring mathematics, as I did when I was in junior high and high school. I wanted to offer inspirational opportunities similar to what my father offered me, especially to students who didn’t have a parent who enjoyed playing with mathematics.


When I was in high school in Palo Alto during the 1970s, my math teacher gave interested students bimonthly qualifying problem sets for a math contest at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, California. The first few problems were usually easy, and solving one would boost my confidence in tackling the next. Students who received sufficient points on the year’s qualifying problems were invited to the contest towards the end of the school year. I didn’t enjoy the competition itself nearly as much as I’d enjoyed doing the qualifying problem sets. In fact, exploring those problems with my father was one of the things I have enjoyed most in my entire life. It certainly influenced me to study mathematics.

Julia Robinson

Spring of 2005

In the spring of 2005, when I attended a forum called “Sharing Solutions: Promising Practices in Science & Math Education” sponsored by the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI), I asked MSRI’s deputy director, Hugo Rossi, whether he knew what happened to the Saint Mary’s Math Contest. He didn’t, but he emailed a note to some of his colleagues asking what they knew about it. Joshua Zucker, a math teacher at Castilleja School, an all-girls middle and high school in Palo Alto, responded; he had a book containing problems from the contest, which he had won in his high school days at a different math contest in Southern California.

When we connected, Joshua and I brainstormed ideas for organizing an event for middle and high school students. We both wanted to create an event that emphasized fun rather than competition, so we decided to call the event a Festival. There would be two dozen or so tables with math problems, puzzles, games, and activities, each with a facilitator, encouraging and guiding students who needed or desired assistance, in a way similar way to how my father had encouraged and guided me.

Since the Festival was meant to nurture students’ interest in math, we wanted to let them work individually or in groups, as they preferred. The problems and activities at each table were related to one another and became progressively more difficult—we even included research problems whose answers we didn’t know ourselves. We hoped that each attendee would be able to find something engaging and rewarding.

We wanted to name the Festival for someone inspirational, and I suggested Julia Robinson. I had learned about her after watching a pre-release version of George Csicsery’s documentary Julia Robinson and Hilbert’s Tenth Problem; Julia had been a great mathematician renowned for solving, together with Yuri Matijasevich, Martin Davis, and Hilary Putnam, Hilbert’s Tenth Problem. When we began to plan the Festival, we were able to contact her sister, Constance Reid, who gave us permission to use Julia’s name. The Festival was intended to honor her legacy and to encourage students to pursue mathematics.

Constance told us that Julia had often been annoyed when people referred to mathematics as “math,” so we were careful to call the event the Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival. My husband, David desJardins, emailed a co-worker from his days at Google, Peter Norvig, and asked if Google would host the first Festival. Feeling that the event would encourage girls and minorities—groups underrepresented in the company’s workforce—to go further in mathematics, Google was willing to give it a try.

March 2007

In March 2007, Joshua sent announcements for the Festival to many junior high and high school math teachers in the San Francisco Bay Area. We were concerned that we might not get many students to sign up, but within a few weeks, the Festival was oversubscribed. With more registrants than space, we asked Google for a tent to accommodate additional students, which they provided.

The Festival featured 30 tables with activities, puzzles, games, and problems. When a participant showed insight, creativity, or perseverance, or solved a problem correctly, the facilitator at that table gave the student a raffle ticket. Students with winning tickets received a math book and/or Google paraphernalia, e.g., water bottles, umbrellas, hats, and jackets.

Since the response to that first Festival was so enthusiastic, we hosted another Festival the following year. With computational geometry driving a digital revolution in filmmaking, senior scientist Tony DeRose, lead of Pixar’s Research Group, offered to host the Festival on May 4, 2008 at Pixar Animation Studios.

blonde boy plays with cubes

Julia Robinson Mathematics Festivals

The initial format worked so well during the first years that we have not changed it. Julia Robinson Mathematics Festivals (JRMFs) are non-competitive celebrations of mathematics, its great ideas, and its intriguing problems. The problems have low thresholds and high ceilings, challenging participants who are new to the topics as well as knowledgeable problem solvers. JRMFs inspire K–12 students to think critically and to explore the richness and beauty of mathematics through collaborative, creative problem-solving. Participants are supported by volunteers, lovers of mathematics from different disciplines, including mathematicians, teachers, engineers, programmers, older students, and other members of the mathematical community.

A Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival is an extracurricular event that is organized locally, but supported by a national network of advisors, mathematicians, and experienced Festival hosts. The program launched in 2007 at Google has grown exponentially over the past decade. JRMF has hosted over 500 events (Festivals and webinars) with participants in 29 states, the District of Columbia, one territory (Puerto Rico), and 19 foreign countries.

March 2020

Since needing to social distance on account of COVID, in March 2020 JRMF started hosting weekly video webinars to provide the same discovery-based, collaborative mathematical environment to students in a digital age. In the first months, the audience has been 30-50% female, and about 60% are K-12 students, and 40% are teachers, parents, and other adults who enjoy mathematics. JRMF has developed a suite of digital apps to accompany our activities and allow students to engage with our mathematical activities in the manipulative-based way in which they were intended to be experienced. Find JRMF activities online at jrmf.org/activities.

The Festivals and webinars engage many types of students, including those who don’t enjoy participating in competitions or working under time pressure. They are also community events, bringing together institutions and organizations to celebrate mathematics. Anyone can be a Festival or webinar host—parents wanting to get their children more interested in mathematics, educators looking to build excitement in their classrooms, administrators or community members eager to reach out and engage kids and adults in their region, homeschools looking to include discovery-based mathematical learning.

The national JRMF organization provides advice from experienced Festival hosts; activities (puzzles, games, problems, online apps) tailored to the needs of the audience; publicity and organization items, such as signs, banners, swag available at cost; and a free online registration system. These services are offered free of charge to hosts, although there might be incidental costs associated with venue rental, materials, and staffing.

I hope you find the Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival puzzles, games, activities, and problems on the jrmf.org website enjoyably thought-provoking. If you have any favorite problems or activities that you think would be of interest, please send them to info@jrmf.org so that we can consider adding them to the library of activities.

Nancy Blachman

is the Founder of JRMF. Her love of mathematics and puzzles stems from her high school days taking George Polya’s short course in mathematical logic and participating in the Saint Mary’s Math Contest in Moraga, California. These experiences taught her that it was more fun to learn by discovery than to be told how to solve problems or just apply formulae. Nancy earned a B.Sc. in applied mathematics, an M.S. in computer science, and an M.S. in operations research from the University of Birmingham (UK), Stanford, and UC Berkeley, respectively. She taught a course in problem solving with Mathematica at Stanford from 1990 to 1997. She is the former Chair of the Board of Gathering 4 Gardner and she is currently Chair of the UCB IEOR Advisory Board.