ORISE Math Exploration Day is ‘sneaky learning’ for students

July 13, 2023

Students explore math through day of fun activities

Students explore math through day of fun activities.

For many students, math and science lessons are replaced with sleeping in and trips to the pool when the calendar flips to June. While parents and teachers agree brain breaks are good for everyone, they hope months of learning aren’t lost in the trade. Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) is committed to partnering with communities and offering free enrichment opportunities when school isn’t in session.

“I think summer learning loss is definitely a thing,” said Chattanooga Christian School math teacher Maria Rhodes. “Especially with the facts that don’t get repeated as much for quick recall,” she continued.

This summer, ORISE tapped Rhodes to lead Math Exploration Day. The program was offered to rising first through rising third graders on June 15 and to rising fourth through rising sixth graders on June 16.

“It’s not necessarily to fill their heads with a bunch of new math content,” Rhodes explained. “As a math teacher, I don’t want to do math from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. I like that it’s called Math Exploration. The idea is for them to see that math is not just an isolated subject, but that math is in everything they do.”

The day is designed to help students sharpen skills, reinforce what they have already learned and simply make mathematics fun. In preparing her lessons, Rhodes gathered items like modeling clay, dice and cups for stacking games. It’s what she calls ‘sneaky learning.’

“There were one or two who came in and said, ‘This day is going to be boring!’ and they were not happy that they were going to be doing math all day, but then they are the ones who have gotten very into these activities.”

Rising first grader Lily Symonds from University School in Johnson City, Tennessee, was not one who was dreading the class. She said she thought it would be fun. “We played with some beads and made bracelets,” Symonds shared. “In part of my bracelet, I made a pattern: pink, blue, pink, blue, pink, blue.”

Rhodes told her Math Exploration Day students that math informs art through patterns and shapes. With the older students, she explained the Fibonnacci sequence, a sequence in which each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers, with a compass, construction paper, scissors and glue. Rising 6th grader Xavier Giles from Petros Joyner School in Oliver Springs, Tennessee, told us that activity was one of his favorites. “It’s a little bit different because in school it’s usually just worksheets,” Giles said explaining why he thought this course was more fun than what he typically learns in math. “We got more experiences on how to do things in different ways instead of just using a piece of paper and a pencil.”

From math history—how did people come up with numbers?—to measuring your height in paperclips, the day was full of connecting numbers and critical reasoning to engaging activities.

“The teacher said to make up a type of zero if you could make one. I did a zero and then made like a spiral, big and small, inside of it. And it ended up looking like an avocado!” laughed Symonds as she talked about one of her favorite moments.

Rhodes said she enjoyed the reminder that children can have fun as they’re learning math. “Hopefully, this helps to destigmatize math for some of the kids who hate math or say, ‘I am not a math person.’”

Giles told us he found the day to be worthwhile. “You should get all the education you can get,” he advised. When asked what he would have been doing if he didn’t attend Math Exploration Day, he grinned: “I’d probably be playing video games—wasting my mind.”

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The Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) is a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) asset that is dedicated to enabling critical scientific, research, and health initiatives of the department and its laboratory system by providing world class expertise in STEM workforce development, scientific and technical reviews, and the evaluation of radiation exposure and environmental contamination.

ORISE is managed by ORAU, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation and federal contractor, for DOE’s Office of Science. The single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.osti.gov.