National Math Festival 2017

There was mathematical mayhem in DC on Saturday!

Did you miss it? Let me try to capture the day with some photos:

That’s just ONE room, just one part of a very large and increasingly popular National Math Festival.

This was the second festival which is held every two years (alternating with the the US Science and Engineering Festival). The festival was a huge success and was very well attended. I was a little cautious about attendance predictions, given that the festival moved to the convention center from the DC Mall–a location which benefited from wandering foot-traffic.

This year, however, we benefited from the rain. It was dark and rainy all day long, but the National Math Festival provided a wonderful rainy-day escape from the dreary weather. See? Look at all the fun we’re having!

The photos you’re seeing here are all from the travelling exhibits brought to us by the Museum of Mathematics in NYC. I helped MoMATH coordinate volunteers this year, just as I did two years ago. And our volunteers were AWESOME!

We engaged thousands of people throughout the course of the day in meaningful mathematical play. There is a great need for this kind of popular-focus on mathematics, illuminating the beauty, joy, and fun of mathematics, rather than the impression people have of difficulty and drudgery.

All my photos are MoMATH-focused, since that’s where I spent my day. You can find even more of my photos here. And you can see more coverage in my twitter feed. For example, here’s a little clip of some juggling-math:


Did you miss this year’s festival? Mark your calendars for April 2019 and make it a priority!


I’m back

Hey everyone.

I took a two year hiatus from blogging. Life got busy and I let the blog slide. I’m sorry.

But I’m back, and my New Year’s Resolution for 2017 is to post at least once a month!


Here’s what I’ve been up to over the last two years:

  • Twitter. When people ask why I haven’t blogged, I say “twitter ate my blog.” It’s true. Twitter keeps feeding me brilliant things to read, engaging me in wonderful conversations, and providing the amazing fellowship of the MTBoS.
  • James Key. I consistently receive mathematical distractions from my colleague and friend, James, who has a revolutionary view on math education and a keen love for geometry. This won’t be the last time I mention his work. Go check out his blog and let’s start the revolution.

    with my nerdy friends named James

    with my nerdy friends named James

  • My Masters. I finally finished my 5-year long masters program at Johns Hopkins. I now have a MS in Applied and Computational Mathematics…whatever that means!
  • Life. My wife and I had our second daughter, Heidi. We’re super involved in our church. I tutor two nights a week. Sue me for having a life! 🙂
family photo

family photo

  • New curriculum. In our district, like many others, we’ve been rolling out new Common Core aligned curriculum. This has been good for our district, but also a monumental chore. I’m a huge fan of the new math standards, and I’d love to chat with you about the positive transitions that come with the CCSS.
  • Curriculum development. I’ve been working with our district, helping review curriculum, write assessments, and I even helped James Key make some video resources for teachers.
  • Books. Here are a few I’ve read in the last few months: The Joy of x, Mathematical Mindsets, The Mathematical Tourist, Principles to Actions
  • Math Newsletters. Do you get the newsletters from Chris Smith or James Tanton (did you know he’s pushing three essays on us these days?). Email these guys and they’ll put you on their mailing list immediately.
  • Growing. I’ve grown a lot as a teacher in the last two years. For example, my desks are finally in groups. See?
my classroom

my classroom

  • Pi day puzzle hunt! Two years ago we started a new annual tradition. To correspond with the “big” pi-day back in 2015, we launched a giant puzzle hunt that involves dozens of teams of players in a multi-day scavenger hunt. Each year we outdo ourselves. Check out some of the puzzles we’ve done in the last two years.
  • Quora. This question/answer site is awesome, but careful. You’ll be on the site and an hour later you’ll look up and wonder what happened. Here are some of the answers I’ve written recently, most of which are math-related. I know, I know, I should have been pouring that energy into blog posts. I promise I won’t do it again.
  • National Math Festival. Two years ago we had the first ever National Math Festival on the mall in DC. It was a huge success. I helped coordinate volunteers for MoMATH and I’ll be doing it again this year. See you downtown on April 22!
famous mathematicians you might run into at the National Math Festival

famous mathematicians you might run into at the National Math Festival

Now you’ll hopefully find me more regularly hanging out here on my blog. I have some posts in mind that I think you’ll like, and I also invited my colleague Will Rose to write some guest posts here on the blog. Please give him a warm welcome.

Thanks for all the love and comments on recent posts. Be assured that Random Walks is back in business!

MAA Distinguished Lecture Series

If you live in the DC area and you like math, you have no excuse! Come to the MAA Distinguished Lecture Series.

These are one-hour talks, complete with refreshments, all for free due to the generous sponsorship of the NSA. The talks are at the Carriage House, at the MAA headquarters near Dupont Circle.

Here are some of the great talks that are on the schedule in the next few months (I’m especially excited to hear Francis Su on May 14th).

I’ve been to many of these lectures and always enjoyed them. Robert Ghrist‘s lecture was out of this world (here’s the recap, but no video, audio, or slides yet) and was so very accessible and entertaining, despite the abstract nature of his expertise–algebraic topology.

And that’s the wonderful thing about all these talks: Even though these are very bright mathematicians, they go out of their way to give lectures that engage a broad audience.

Here’s another great one from William Dunham, who spoke about Newton (Dunham is probably the world’s leading expert on Newton’s letters). Recap here, and a short youtube clip here:

(full  talk also available)

So, if you’re a DC mathophile, stop by sometime. I’ll see you there!

USA Science and Engineering Festival

If you’re local, you should go check out the USA Science and Engineering Festival this weekend. It’s on the mall in DC and everything is free.

USA-Science-and Engineering-Festival LogoThey will have tons of booths, free stuff, demonstrations, presentations, and performances. Go check it out!

For my report on the fest from two years ago, see this post. The USA Science and Engineering Festival is also responsible for bringing to our school, free of charge, the amazing James Tanton!

I ♥ Icosahedra

Do you love icosahedra?

I do. On Sunday, I talked with a friend about an icosahedron for over an hour. Icosahedra, along with other polyhedra, are a wonderfully accessible entry point into math–and not just simple math, but deep math that gets you pretty far into geometry and topology, too! Just see my previous post about Matthew Wright’s guest lecture.)

A regular icosahedron is one of the five regular surfaces (“Platonic Solids”). It has twenty sides, all congruent, equilateral triangles. Here are three icosahedra:

icosahedron coloringsHere’s a question which is easy to ask but hard to answer:

How many ways can you color an icosahedron with one of n colors per face?

If you think the answer is n^{20}, that’s a good start–there are n choices of color for 20 faces, so you just multiply, right?–but that’s not correct. Here we’re talking about an unoriented icosahedron that is free to rotate in space. For example, do the three icosahedra above have the same coloring? It’s hard to tell, right?

Solving this problem requires taking the symmetry of the icosahedron into account. In particular, it requires a result known as Burnside’s Lemma.

For the full solution to this problem, I’ll refer you to my article, authored together with friends Matthew Wright and Brian Bargh, which appears in this month’s issue of MAA’s Math Horizons Magazine here (JSTOR access required).

I’m very excited that I’m a published author!

Welcome James Tanton!

image stolen directly from

Today we have the special privilege of hosting the one and only, Dr. James Tanton. He will be our guest speaker today and he’ll be talking with our students about his love for math, and hopefully spark in them an appreciation for mathematical play.

We’ll have 800 students at the assembly. And James will be armed with nothing but paper and pen (and a document camera). Bold man! 🙂

If you’ve never checked out James’ materials, go visit his website, take a look at his prolific youtube channel, or follow him on twitter @jamestanton.

James is the author of 10 books on mathematics and math education. He is currently a Mathematician in Residence at the Mathematical Association of America, right here in Washington DC. He comes to us by way of the USA Science & Engineering Festival and its sponsors (Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Scientific American, Popular Science, and others). Thank you, USA Science & Engineering Festival!

We’re very excited to have James with us!

Math on the web

Here are two items that have been shared with me in the last 24 hours:

Item 1: Want To Be Better At Math? Use Hand Gestures! Jeremy Shere of Indiana Public Media. Check out this very short audio news that suggests that math instruction has been shown more effective with gestures. I flail around in front of my classroom all the time, so I guess that makes me a good teacher, right? I’d sure like to think so! 🙂  (HT: Tim Chase)

Item 2: How to Fall in Love With Math. Manil Suri, professor at a small school down the road from me (University of Maryland…maybe you’ve heard of it?), has a very nice piece on why math is a worthy object for our affection. It’s been heavily shared in the circles I travel–and for good reason. He reminds us that people fall susceptible to two very common errors when casually speaking about math: (1) We reduce it to arithmetic, as in “come on guys, do the math” or (2) we elevate it to something so ethereal that it’s impossible to grasp, as in “that mathematician talks and I don’t understand a word he says. I never was good at math.” Math, Suri says, is much more than arithmetic and much more accessible than people give it credit for. People can appreciate it without understanding every difficult nuance, just as they do art. (HT: Beth Budesheim)