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Looking for interesting math challenges?

September 10, 2009

This information provided by Susan Goodkin, Executive Director of the California Learning Strategies Center. The Center helps parents meet the need of advanced and gifted students from kindergarten through college planning.

Too many bright elementary school math students spend their time sitting through lessons aimed at struggling classmates, and completing problem after problem on concepts they already mastered. These students quickly conclude that math is boring.

Parents need to take the initiative and find appropriately challenging substitute assignments for their child to work on in class.

Students who can learn independently would enjoy working through the book, The Ten Things All Future Mathematicians and Scientists Must Know (But are Rarely Taught). Written by former teacher Ed Zaccaro, Ten Things illustrates the connection between math, science and the real world through analyzing events such as the Three Mile Island nuclear accident.

Number Sense and Nonsense: Building Math Creativity and Confidence Through Number Play, by Claudia Zaslavsky, presents challenging problems, puzzles and activities on interesting number concepts such a s “Zero – Is It Something? Is It Nothing?”

Students may also be intrigued by It’s Alive and Kicking: Math the Way it Ought to Be—Tough, Fun, and a Little Weird, by Asa Kleiman and David Washington. Promising “math that makes you squirm,” this book offers problems to “challenge, motivate and gross-out math students who like the unusual.”

If Internet connections are available in the classroom, the Web also offers a wealth of playgrounds for inquiring young math minds.

For open-ended math exploration, students can go to Younger students in particular might be intrigued by the math cats balance section, where they can try to virtually balance objects ranging from electrons to galaxies.

The wonderful University of Cambridge site,, offers intriguing problems (with solutions) on a variety of challenge levels, math games, and interesting articles on issues such as math palindromes.

As for homework, if students can get four or five problems of an assignment completed correctly, that should be the end of the exercise. Parents then need to provide options that offer more challenging and thought-provoking opportunities for math exploration.

All the books and Web sites mentioned above for use in the classroom can be used at home as well.

Parents can also explore math concepts together with their child at Web sites such as This site offers math challenge problems for families, including guidance about how to get started thinking about the problem, solutions and follow-up problems.

Parents and students are also encouraged to think together about “unusual and important” math ideas at

While fully meeting the needs of advanced math students can be difficult, these approaches offer a simple start for for parents and schools to keep talented young mathematicians challenged and intrigued.

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