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Young John Geddes leaned his chin on the edge of the table to get a good look at the animal crackers packed in the glass mayonnaise jar.

"I'm counting the numbers at the bottom and estimating the numbers in the middle," the Stevens Forest Elementary School third-grader explained as his yellow pencil moved from the bottom to the top of the jar. After turning the jar around and calculating, the 8-year-old guessed that there were 290 crackers in the jar.

Jim Hamilton, who works in re-insurance accounting, guessed there were 286 cookies, based on the number of cookies that filled the bottom inch. "I went way over, I'm sure," he predicted.

Mr. Hamilton was right. He was wrong. There were only 163 cookies in the jar.

But it really didn't matter who was right. John and Mr. Hamilton were among 48 parents and children who came to learn creative problem-solving techniques at the Family Math Program at Stevens Forest Elementary School in Howard County last Wednesday.

The four-week, 1 1/2 -hour-long program for kindergarten through eighth-graders was created in Berkeley, Calif., to encourage families to think of math in a fun and creative way, said Bette Kundert, the county's elementary math resource teacher.

"This way parents get to see how math is taught today," she said. "It's not the same."

This year, the free program for families is offered also at Dasher Green Elementary and Ellicott Mills Middle schools. It debuted in Howard County in 1990 at Elkridge Elementary School, Mrs. Kundert said.

The National Security Agency gives schools about $2,300 to pay for the program, she said. Many schools continue the program using PTA funding.

Through the estimation exercise and others, adults and children learn that they use math every day -- whether doing the laundry or keeping score in a card game.

"It's really neat; kind of off the wall," Mr. Hamilton said of the Family Math program. "It makes you think."

He said he helped his 5-year-old daughter, Laura, conclude there were 175 cookies in the mayonnaise jar. Originally, she guessed 101. "I just thought that was too low," he said.

Laura is good at math, her father said, though she gets her fives and twos backward. "I think that's to be expected for a 5-year-old," he said.

After the cookie estimation and other math warm-up exercises, the 22 families sat down for group exercises. They found numbers in newspapers, discussed ways math is used daily, solved numerical patterns, rolled dice to learn probability and learned calculator shortcuts.

"I want you to remember you don't always have to snuggle up with a good book with your kids, but you can snuggle up with good math," Mrs. Kundert reminded the parents.

After a makeshift drum roll, it was announced that Darryl Pastor, 9, and Lina Liebhold, a Montgomery County music teacher, had come closest to guessing the number of cookies in the jar without going over.

How did Darryl pick 153? "I don't know," the fourth-grader said, shrugging his shoulders. He won a pack of fake money.

And Mrs. Liebhold won a plastic compass for guessing 157. "I tried different ways and looked at the jar to see if that would be feasible," she said of her strategy.

Claire Alpert, a landscape architect who came with her 8-year-old son, Peter, said she could have benefited from a similar program when she was a child. Math "was a very solemn affair when I did it," she said. "It was not much fun."

She said she struggled in the subject and disliked math because her father excelled in the subject.

Family Math, however, is changing her perspective. "I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks," she said.

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