Discovering the 'magic' of numbers at first Howard math festival

Math isn't about solving for "X," but rather about searching for "why."

That was the message David Gertler had for the hundreds gathered at the first annual Howard County Math Festival Wednesday, Jan. 29 at Centennial High School in Ellicott City. Gertler, a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) advocate and former candidate for the Board of Education, gave the keynote address at the festival, organized by STEMulating Minds.


"Math and STEM are exciting fields, and they're for everyone," said STEMulating Minds Chair Phil Rogofsky. "It's not just for the kids that seem to get it right away. It's for everyone. Math is a part of everything. Whatever you do, it involves a certain amount of math."

Sometimes, Rogofsky said, students only think math is about solving tedious, boring problems in class. But the point of the Math Festival was to show kids that math is fun, he said.

To that end, dozens of organizations were on hand Wednesday at Centennial, from the University of Maryland Baltimore County's chess team, to representatives from the National Security Agency speaking on cryptology. Students played with Legos and tangrams, or learned about possible career opportunities from architects, engineers, economists, among others.

"This is fun," said Bellows Spring Elementary School fifth-grader Emma Klingensmith, who was at the festival with her mother, her teacher and her friend, Trisha Reddy. "Math is my favorite subject. I always look forward to it."

Trisha said she, too, likes her math class, especially when her teacher makes it fun. Her teacher, Noel Richman, said that's the point — math is fun. She encouraged her students to go to the festival.

"I think anything that gets people jazzed about math is a worthwhile endeavor," Richman said. "The kids need to see math as more than textbooks and worksheets. They need to see it as a living, breathing thing from people who are passionate about it."

Local elected officials and candidates were on at the event, and Sen. Allen Kittleman and Council member Courtney Watson delivered proclamations for the festival. Gertler said he expected between 400 and 600 people at the festival, and Centennial was a bustle of activity Wednesday night. Parents and students roamed the halls as well, with two corridors of classrooms and the cafeteria dedicated to presentations and activities, like "Math to Mathertain You," modular origami or the "Mathematics of Social Impact."

"Only in Howard County do you find so many people who really appreciate the value of math, for education purposes and career purposes," Gertler said. "It's one of the coldest days of the year, yet we have so many people who have come out for this."

Math is different from the other sciences, Gertler said. Other science fields are subject to revision, but with math, once something is true, it's always true, he said.

"One plus one is always going to equal two," he said. "The most fundamental discoveries in math stand the test of time. Math is the search for ultimate truth. ... When you come up with a truth, with a truism, it holds. It's bedrock. New ideas grow on top of it, but in math, once it's discovered, it's absolute."

While delivering the keynote, Gertler pointed out all the fields students could go into if they studied math. Math, he said, is about unlocking doors, finding insights and making discoveries. In short, he said, "math is magic."

"Math is testing assumptions, looking for meaning, looking for the ultimate truth in the universe," he said. "Math is not a problem to be solved, but a gift to be unwrapped. Certainly no one paid me to factor polynomials or use the quadratic equation, but if you look around the room, you see that math is a tool. It's a microscope, it's a scalpel, it's a sledgehammer."