Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival in China – Everyone loves it!
Chairman of Open House Education Foundation
It all started in March 2017 when I took part in the inaugural Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival (JRMF) in Hong Kong—t was a totally new concept to me. Then, I attended another festival in California when JRMF organized a dedicated session for international students participating in a Stanford Pre-Collegiate summer program. I was there with 40 Chinese high school students and had a great experience.
Since then, the Open House Education Foundation has helped promote JRMF and has organized a dozen festivals in different parts of China, including Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Zhenjiang, Changsha, Hangyang, and Qingyang. The Chinese government is interested in less competitive, more cooperative ways to stimulate learning of mathematics at the pre-collegiate stage, and JRMF does just that. The feedback from Chinese principals and teachers has been phenomenal.
We work with schools directly, and the majority of the festivals that we host are for students in grades 3 - 10. Students love the problems and puzzles; you can observe them getting into groups to explore. Sometimes they cannot find enough space at a table and just work on the puzzle sitting on the floor. Their faces light up as they arrive at their eureka moment.
The latest JRMF maze mats have been a big hit in the US, and we see the same response in China. We picked two mazes, “Swimming Pool” and “Jumping Julia 2” and presented them at a local school in May 2019. Due to the huge number of students who wanted to solve the maze, we had to put a 20-minute restriction on individual time spent on the maze. It was fun to watch students sitting along the edge of the maze or cramped at a table, struggling to figure out the solution. “Swimming Pool” was easier, and some students began to get it and soon all got it. “Jumping Julia 2” was a real challenge, and originally we thought nobody would figure it out. Surprisingly, in 80 minutes, one Grade 8 student found the solution! He was too shy to walk on the maze, but his teacher followed his instructions and did a walking demo instead.
The maze is so much fun that we have ordered ten more copies and plan to introduce it into many schools this summer and fall.
Over the years, we have learned to pick JRMF activities that do not require any pen and paper, especially for first-time participants and for students in younger grades. We bring colorful and attractive manipulatives and provide drinks and snacks. Problems such as “The Skyscraper,” “Color Triangle,” “Game of SET,” and “Who took the Candies?” are very popular. Any puzzle that requires students working together to try to compete against another person or pair always works well. “Tip the Dice/Number 31” is a perfect example of an activity where you will see students gathering in a corner and laughing loudly.
The style of JRMF problems, with layers of questions on the same page, is very appealing to teachers and students. The Festival is great for students who like to dive deep and explore as well as for those who like to dabble and try a variety of different activities.
Interestingly, occasionally we got input from experienced Chinese math teachers who suggested that we should separate different layers of questions into different pieces, so only students who solve one question can see the next question. This is a cultural educational difference that we may want to investigate more deeply. It may be an area of exploration when we refine the Chinese JRMF festival package for 2020.
We are especially pleased that one Chinese high school student, Bella Ziya Ye, is so engaged in JRMF that she mobilized her fellow students as well as her teachers to put on four math festivals in Chengdu between 2018 and 2019. Along with other math-passionate students in different cities, we are building up a small network of JRMF Student Ambassadors. This is a very important asset for JRMF to further promote its program in China.
In March 2018, we hosted a JRMF and a half-day seminar for K-12 math teachers in Changsha with the support of the Hunan Mathematics Research Association. JRMF Executive Director Mark Saul came and gave lively lectures to the teachers. The way that Mark conducted a class was inspirational to many teachers, including the Dean of Teachers and the Curriculum Development Group. Many teachers would like to bring the festival problems to their classroom and are requesting teacher training and classroom-style materials in Chinese. The teachers also want a series of extended learning materials for each JRMF activity.
In just two years, we have seen a huge expansion of JRMF in China. We think that there is a solid demand for teacher-training programs and festival-package guides in both Chinese and English. It will be great to find out how others run festivals and to help develop and learn best practices. We look forward to another fruitful year in 2020 when we plan to introduce JRMF to a much wider group of math teachers and educators by leveraging the platform of the International Congress on Mathematical Education in Shanghai.