Word problem: If dozens of high school student teams make movies celebrating the pure fun of math, six celebrities and scientists (including actor Alan Alda and, for the first time this year, Science Friday host Ira Flatow) weigh in on those movies’ merits, and 6,000-plus middle school and high school students choose the best of the bunch, what do you get?
Answer: Math-O-Vision—the third annual math movie-making competition for high school students—sponsored by Dartmouth’s Neukom Institute for Computational Science—which is designed to inspire creativity through math.
Among this year’s entries, competing for $7,000 in cash prizes: a meditation on how to represent negative zero on a number line; a cosmically punny battle between positive and negative integers; and a quest to calculate how to brew a perfect cup of tea.
Why a math-themed creativity contest? Math-O-Vision’s founder, Daniel Rockmore, director of the Neukom Institute and the William H. Neukom 1964 Distinguished Professor of Computational Science, says that because primary and secondary school mathematics usually focuses on the mechanics of solving specific types of problems, it can be hard for students to see math as a creative endeavor.
A key experience of Rockmore’s own childhood, he recalls, was watching a Disney movie called Donald Duck in Mathmagicland. “It’s the world’s greatest math video ever. It was funny and interesting and a little mysterious and kind of weird. It made a huge impression on me, that mathematics was something you could have fun with, that you could laugh about, and that you could be surprised about.”
Rockmore has participated in making movies about mathematics himself and has found it to be an enjoyable way to be creative with mathematics. “The technology now is so easy to use, it struck me that if I could give kids the opportunity to have that experience, this might provide a novel kind of on-ramp for kids with all kinds of interests to have fun with math,” he says.
Alan Alda, who has served as a Math-O-Vision judge since its inception and whose Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University sponsors its own science film competition, called the Flame Challenge, says, “I wish there were fun and imaginative ways like Math-O-Vision to play with math when I was a kid. I’d have entered the contest every chance I could. Numbers might have become happy playthings for me, the way letters did. I love judging the entries and seeing what kids can do creatively with math.”
In addition to Alda and Flatow, first-round judges include Rockmore, science writer Alex Bellos; Stanford music and computer science professor and app designer Ge Wang; and Lori Loeb, a research professor in Dartmouth’s computer science department and executive director of the Digital Arts Leadership and Innovation (DALI) lab.
This is the first time middle school and high school classes will select the winners. More than 6,000 students have already signed up with their classes to screen the finalists.
Seano Whitecloud, creative director and communications coordinator at the Neukom Institute, hopes that having a middle school audience will both inspire greater originality among entrants and generate enthusiasm for math and creativity among the young judges.
“It’s building a community,” Whitecloud says. “The high schoolers will have to be creative to try to sell something to the middle schoolers; the middle schoolers will love judging high schoolers’ products.”
Paige Bigley ’17, who has been working with Whitecloud to reach out to classrooms nationwide, says, “I’m not a math person—numbers quite frankly scared me for most of middle school and high school. So the opportunity to get involved with kids who are trying to create movies for their peers to teach them about math in a nonthreatening way was really interesting.”
Bigley says her work with Math-O-Vision has changed her personal approach to math. “I’m a lot more open to trying math now. I’m actually taking a statistics course this term, and I don’t think I would have ever really considered that before.”
The middle school classes will start viewing finalists on May 1. Winners of this year’s Math-O-Vision contest will be announced on or around May 18. To see last year’s winners and view this year’s entries, visit math-o-vision.com.