March STEAM Madness: Jumping ahead to the “M”!

True to form, March 2017 blew in like a lion and out like a lamb . . . but this year, a numbers-minded marsupial bounced into the middle—at The New Century School, anyway!

Math Kangaroo Comes to Baltimore

For the first time in Baltimore, TNCS hosted Math Kangaroo, an International Competition for 1st- through 12-grade students whose mission is to:

  • Encourage students to master their mathematical knowledge.
  • Give them confidence in their ability for comprehending mathematics.
  • Help them understand how mathematics applies in nature’s laws and human activities.
  • Develop their ability to derive pleasure and satisfaction through intellectual life.
  • Show that mathematical education is significant in every part of the world.

imgres“Bringing an international math competition to Baltimore has been a dream of mine for a long time,” said TNCS Co-Founder/Co-Executive Director and former math teacher Jennifer Lawner.

A challenge for Baltimore as more people are choosing to stay and raise their families here is offering appropriate activities for them that are currently available in the county. Organizations like the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance and Coppermine Fieldhouse have been critical in trying to recruit activities for Baltimore so that we can have our children participate in engaging pursuits and sports leagues, and I think TNCS also helps with extracurricular activities. For me, math competitions are also in the realm of things that Baltimore needs to function as a livable place for families.

Why Math Kangaroo

TNCS hopes to offer the competition annually henceforth, and participation will be open to students from schools city-wide. This first event was somewhat of a trial run, though, before actively recruiting other schools. Ms. Lawner said she wanted to first make sure that the event “lifted students up rather than discouraging them. What we’re trying to do is get children interested in math at early ages so that they might consider intensive study or careers in math-related fields in the future.” Math Kangaroo had the benefit of opening participation in 1st grade, whereas many other math competitions, such as Math Olympiads, start at 4th grade. “They have to be old enough to be able to read the problems and instructions,” explained Ms. Lawner, “but the first and second level exams also offer a lot of visual problems for younger students.”


The biggest appeal of Math Kangaroo, however, is the approach to doing math. For example, the problems start easy and get progressively harder so that there will always be enough problems for the individual student to be able to work out and feel successful enough to keep going. “Encountering problems they have never been exposed to before is a really good experience for students,” added Ms. Lawner, “because they have mastered at least enough skills to try, and that’s our primary goal for them—to be motivated to try but be okay with possibly not being able to get it the first time.” TNCS’s regular math curriculum consists of skill-building and problem-solving, but Math Kangaroo provided a fresh kind of problem for students to tackle. Said Ms. Lawner:

The problems are formulated in such a way that, for example, multiplication might be necessary for the solution, but it won’t be immediately obvious that multiplication is required. The student has to fundamentally understand what multiplication accomplishes in order to use it in the context of the problem. It’s not just working through 50 arithmetic problems in a fixed amount of time, as people might imagine. These problems might involve multiple steps, each requiring a mathematical tool that the students have been learning to use, which gets them figuring out how these skills fit into solving the problem. It’s not a repetitive thing; with actual problem-solving, you have to use logic in addition to traditional math skills. The strength of these problems is that they must be understood very deeply to be solved, and that’s really what is being tested.

Math Kangaroo 2015 Sample Questions

In the weeks leading up to the March 16th competition, TNCS teachers worked with students to give them practice breaking down these kinds of problems into discrete steps and organizing their work. Reading the problem carefully is key in problems such as what are listed below. Go on, give it a shot! (Answers are given at the end of the post in case you get stumped.)

Level 1/2

1. Look closely at these four pictures.

Which figure is missing from one of the pictures?


Level 3/4

2. Peter has ten balls, numbered from 0 to 9. He gave four of the balls to George and three to Ann. Then each of the three friends multiplied the numbers on their balls. As the result, Peter got 0, George got 72, and Ann got 90. What is the sum of the numbers on the balls that Peter kept for himself?


A) 11               B) 12               C) 13               D) 14              E) 15

Level 5/6

3. Four points lie on a line. The distances between them are, in increasing order: 2, 3, k, 11, 12, 14. What is the value of k?

A) 5                 B) 6                 C) 7                 D) 8                 E) 9

Level 7/8

4. In a group of kangaroos, the two lightest kangaroos weigh 25% of the total weight of the group. The three heaviest kangaroos weigh 60% of the total weight. How many kangaroos are in the group?

A) 6                 B) 7                 C) 8                 D) 15               E) 20

Level 9/10

5. The figure shows seven regions formed by three intersecting circles. A number is written in each region. It is known that the number in any region is equal to the sum of the numbers in all neighboring regions. (We call two regions neighboring if their boundaries have more than one common point.) Two of the numbers are known (see the figure). Which number is written in the central region?


A) 0                 B) – 3               C) 3                 D) – 6               E) 6

Level 11/12

6. When reading the following statements from the left to the right, what is the first statement that is true?

A) C) is true.    B) A) is true.    C) E) is false.   D) B) is false. E) 1 + 1 = 2

Competition Outcomes

Parents may have been skeptical about the idea of their kids sitting down to take what, in effect, was a 90-minute math exam, complete with answer bubbles carefully filled in with no. 2 pencils, especially because this is something they had not been asked to do thus far at TNCS. But, perhaps surprisingly, the students not only handled it without issue, but actually enjoyed it, more importantly, which was the primary goal. It’s easy to speculate on why—it’s a competition—a game—not an anxiety-inducing test, and kids brought lots of positivity to the experience. The challenge is itself motivating, in the same way sports can be for the physical body. Participation, moreover, is optional.
They also received a T-shirt, a pencil, a tattoo, and a certificate of participation for joining in, so those inducements may be responsible for some of the joie de math.  Another reason, explained Ms. Lawner, “is that children all over the world were participating, so our students felt very special to be a part of this. Mathematics is done all over the world, and Math Kangaroo wants to make students aware of that connection and prepare them for that global challenge.”
One thing that is important to bear in mind about this kind of endeavor is that the score, seemingly paradoxically, is largely beside the point. Because the exam is intended to challenge, many students might not score even above 50%, but, said Ms. Lawner, “the value was that students had the opportunity to step out of the curriculum and face new problems, and they got excited about math. Parents and teachers also got excited and participated. I think the experience elevated the students’ interest in mathematics and awareness of mathematics as an international activity—great benefits, to be sure.”
The primary goals of fun and engagement were achieved, if how excited students were both before and after the event are any indication. Some parents even report being given math tests of their children’s devising. Nevertheless, it might seem counterintuitive for a school that does not adopt standardized tests to go in for this kind of math exam. “The baggage that goes along with the word ‘test’ is a lot,” said Ms. Lawner, “when what we’re really trying to do is give students a period of challenge. It’s not so much a test on material that they’ve learned and are supposed to regurgitate as an experience with challenging problems and what they can do with them.” Another kind of “score,” in other words. “How hard they worked was so impressive,” said Ms. Lawner who was on hand to help out during exam administration. “They used all their time and were so determined to do this thing.”
IMG_1440 1
Even so, students who do score well will be rewarded with prizes. There are medals for the top three students in the country, and ribbons for the top three in the state. Other prizes include books, games, gift cards, and toys. Students who demonstrate high achievement over multiple years are eligible for college grants.

The Future of Math Kangaroo at TNCS

Previous Maryland winners seem to cluster in Montgomery county—“It’s time for Baltimore to challenge that!” said Ms. Lawner. With the inaugural event being so well-received by TNCS students, next year, the hope is to offer two public sessions for non-TNCS students in addition to the in-school exam.
There’s so much talent in Baltimore, in our children, and I would just love for them to be encouraged to come show their stuff. Sometimes all children need is to be asked to participate. It might start somebody down a path that could lead to his or her life’s passion. I think it’s really important to encourage math, especially as students get older and the math gets harder. Our goal here is for students to get a really solid foundation in math so that later they’re able to make choices and that multiple future paths are open to them. A career in engineering, for example, requires a certain level of math skill. So, we always want to promote the possibility that you can do it—you can stare at a problem long enough, given the right tools, to find a creative solution.
Answers to Practice Questions
1. D) image005 2. E) 15 3. E) 9 4. A) 6 5. A) 0 6. D) B) is false.