Can you imagine a better way to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon, the one just before Pi day, than by going to a Pi day celebration at your local university? Well, my eleven-year-old and nine-year-old sons agreed with me that they simply could not, so they donned their Pi Day t-shirts, hopped in the momivan, and off we went.
As we registered, we were joined by two of my 11yo’s friends, his LEGO Throwdown teammates, along with the same mom who had hung out with me for the first half of that competition.
The day actually began with a 3.14K run, which we missed. But we made it in time for the boys to try out all the cool activities promised in the brochure. Anyhow, the event was definitely educational.
Lesson 1: Little Debbie Moon Pies are gross
After we registered, would you believe that the kids turned down the chance to get ‘pi on their faces’? I mean, the awesome pun alone warranted at least one of them to let her draw the letter Pi on their cheeks with some washable skin-friendly crayon thing, right? But no.
Then another friendly volunteer handed out Moon Pies. Get it? Well, I hadn’t had lunch, so I took one (while the other mom wisely abstained). She and I stood and chatted as the kids wandered to one of the tables. I unwrapped it, took a bite, and thought back fondly to the previous minute when I hadn’t already taken a bite. No offense, Little Debbie, but this is not one of your finer creations. I suppose if I were on the moon, or had just returned from the moon, where I had eaten nothing but freeze dried meals for the whole mission, it might have some semblance of taste. But here on Earth, not so much. Sorry. I’d feel guilty about the assessment, but after taking two bites (as I said, I’d skipped lunch), I glanced over to see the kids walking toward the garbage can to throw theirs away.
The atrium was set up with several tables, each with a different activity. One had a set of K’Nex that kids could build, others offered Polydron Sphera, Reptangles, and Tessellation Mosaics. Our boys chose a set of stackable turtles called Reptangles and, while my 9yo griped about how he didn’t understand what the activity had to do with Pi, he kept building. The boys seriously sat and played with the toys for a good twenty minutes before I suggested we go downstairs to explore the Mobius Strip activity.
Lesson 2: Möbius strips are pretty cool
Maybe delaying lunch wasn’t the best idea. The kids were a little disappointed by the activities and explored reluctantly. My 9yo got the materials, sat down, and decided not to follow directions.
“I’ve done this before,” he informed me. Meanwhile, my 11yo, my English teacher friend, and I were wowed by what the cool activity created (or, in the words of the aforementioned friend, “This is getting trippy”).
Sadly, the boys weren’t so impressed. We left that room, my 9yo declaring, “Wait. Isn’t there supposed to be something fun?” Yeah, tough crowd. Or, the pi-shaped pancakes weren’t enough, and we really just needed to head to lunch.
Lesson 3: Population Counts are Cool
The nice thing about joining forces with another parent is that you’re less likely to succumb to the whining and deciding to just pack it up and go home. We wandered into the next room, where the activity dealt with Population Counts. We sat down on the floor with the volunteers, where my 9yo reluctantly started the activity. Well, kind of. He scooped clear beads into a red plastic cup from a giant bin and poured it on the carpet. As he sorted out the glass pebbles from the snowflake shapes and fake ice cubes, he couldn’t resist asking.
“What does this have to do with pi?”
“I don’t know,” said the professor leading the activity. “It’s because we’re working with numbers.”
Satisfied, he counted the beads (grouping them, rebelliously, into piles of eight). He counted out the same number of black pebbles and poured those (along with the snowflakes and cubes) back into the bin (but not the original clear pebbles, since the black ones represented ‘tagged’ salamanders whose population was being counted), then scooped out another red cup full and repeated his count. All these numbers were jotted down, and then it was time for some math.
“Here, use a calculator,” said the friendly professor.
“No! I hate calculators!” Yep, that’s my boy.
He calculated the population to within two, which would have been quite impressive, had my elder son’s friends not calculated theirs exactly. Nonetheless, good lesson.
Lesson 4: Trihexaflexagon is more than just fun to say
They didn’t make it into this room. Nope, they were spent. But while my 11yo finished up his population count, I wandered next door to check out the next activity. I got directions, asked some questions so I understood, watched others with their struggles, and made sure to ask my son’s question:
Me: So what does this have to do with pi?
Volunteer: Pi is just a ratio. This is a math activity.
Well said, college student, well said. Nonetheless, here’s what they made.
At this point, there were only about forty minutes left to explore the activities before it was time to head to the auditorium for the special speaker. I had not planned on staying that long, since we still had about six hours of soccer ahead of us that day, but at that point, I was really just thinking about food. We headed over to the hospital food court across the street (turns out, the hot dog vendor doesn’t bother showing up on campus during Spring Break, which in retrospect is probably a good thing). Quick meal later, we rushed back to the auditorium and sat way in the back just as the introductions were beginning.
I had my doubts. If the kids couldn’t stay interested in doing activities related to a topic they already loved, what was I thinking making them sit in a room and listen to someone talk??
And then he began. Arthur Benjamin is a self-proclaimed ‘Mathemagician,’ which is a word I approve of as a writer, and as a parent, well, it showed promise.
He started with a magic trick. A card trick that totally wowed the audience. Good. Hook them in. Sure, I was amused. But I could stare at tile patterns and start seeing images that would then form into characters that would suddenly act out stories in my mind, so I don’t really trust my own level of interest when it comes to my kids.
He engaged the audience, brought up volunteers, demonstrated amazing feats of mathemagics
and even sang a song
Along the way, he fielded a whole lot of questions from the audience, even two from our group.
Q:What was your first memory of having a skill with numbers?A:He couldn’t quite remember, so he asked his mom, who was in the audience, and she said “When you were four you couldn’t sleep and u asked why and you said you couldn’t get the numbers out of my head.”Q from my son’s friend:How many digits of Pi do you know?A:
100Q:What was the most complicated problem you ever solved?A:If I asked you for the greatest common divisor of 20 and 90, you’d know the answer is 10.
So, the GCD(20, 90) = 10. Well, it turns out the GCD(F20, F90) = F10Q by my 9yo:What’s the largest prime number you know?A:1,111,111,111,111,111,111 (19 ones is a prime)
Q:What’s your favorite math operation?A:SquaringQ:How would you make math fun for kids?A:11 multiplication
My 9yo pointed out that he had already watched this guy’s TED talk at school, so he was mesmerized.
We drove from there straight to a soccer tournament, but with everyone we saw, my son kept wanting to talk about this guy’s talk. Mathemagician is right. In discussing Martin Gardner, a mathematician who inspired him, Benjamin quoted someone as saying Gardner “turned children into mathematicians and mathematicians into children.” Well, my child is both, and despite its dubious beginning, this Pi Math Day celebration made this Pi Day as exciting as Christmas in this household.
So if you find yourself this Pi Day with no definitive plans, perhaps some of the activities above will inspire you to make more of your pi day celebration than a pie eating contest.