Nancy Blachman speaks to students during the Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival.
Nancy Blachman speaks to students during the Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival.

Q&A: How do you get kids to love math? Try a festival.

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Math is fun, says Nancy Blachman, and the 65-year-old Burlingame resident is trying her best to get others to agree. Blachman founded the Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival, which since 2007 has held events designed to help students find joy in math through exploration and collaboration. Using activities such as puzzles and games, with facilitators on hand to help those seeking assistance, the nonprofit has held nearly 500 in-person and online events worldwide. It also creates booklets, apps, mazes, even travel kits, all available with instructions on its website, which also lists upcoming events.

Blachman grew up in Palo Alto and pursued a career that incorporated her skills in applied mathematics and computer science and her love of problem-solving.

J.:  How did you become interested in math?

Nancy Blachman: We lived in Spain when I was in the third grade and I excelled in math. The [math] problems were quite different in Spain than in America.

I continued enjoying math. In junior high [in Palo Alto], we would periodically play Krypto, a game [consisting of] five cards with numbers and a target card, and you’d have to compute the target number. I really liked that game and did quite well at it. I learned my math facts by playing Krypto.

In 10th grade of high school, my math teacher encouraged interested students to work on qualifying problems for the Saint Mary’s College Math Contest. I would work on them with my father, but he’d never tell me the answers. I remember those problems fondly.

Why did you create the Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival?

I went to an event in 2005 with an organization that promoted STEM [science, technology, engineering and math], which got me thinking about the Saint Mary’s math contest and how much I enjoyed it. Along with Josh Zucker, a Palo Alto math teacher who knew about the Saint Mary’s contest, and Jim Sotiros of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute [since retired], we decided to try to create something that would engage and inspire students, an event where students could collaborate and not be under time pressure. We asked Google to host the first [festival]. Pixar asked to host the next one.

Before we knew it, we were in 31 states and six continents — just by word of mouth. In 2019, we had over 120 festivals all over the world, in 20 countries — India, Ghana, Romania, Mexico, Canada. … We develop materials and recruit facilitators. [The festivals] are running online and in-person events.

How did you choose the name for the festival?

We wanted to name it after a woman, to encourage girls to get involved. I’d just seen a film about Julia Robinson, a mathematics professor at UC Berkeley who was involved in solving Hilbert’s 10th problem. Her sister gave us permission to use her name.

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Was the original intent to attract girls?

We wanted to encourage girls to do math and help close the gender gap, but we weren’t going exclusively for girls. Our target audience is third- to eighth-graders. Our festivals are attended by 30 to 50 percent girls.

Why do you think many students struggle with math?

I think it has to do with some of the ways math is taught in school. Kids have to memorize formulas, procedures and facts. This can be a dull way to learn. JRMF introduces math in a visual and tactile way that encourages play and experimentation.

Also, if you don’t do a lot of math, you’re going to struggle. But if you do something you love, you’re going to do more of it. So get kids to solve some mathematical problem that interests them: Do the mathematics of sports, or basketball, or art — whatever they are interested in.

Sounds like your father played a role in your liking math.

My father was an engineer. As a very young girl I said I wanted to be an engineer. I didn’t even know what it was at the time! I recognize that my father was really special. He would ask me questions that encouraged and guided me. I wanted other young people to have that kind of mentorship in JRMF. We sought facilitators for the festivals, and we got wonderful people.

What is your Jewish background?

My parents gave me the choice of having a bat mitzvah, and I chose not to. But my high school offered Hebrew as a foreign language, so I took it in addition to Spanish and French. I went to Israel after high school, went to a kibbutz and studied Hebrew in an ulpan program in Tel Aviv. The teachers spoke only Hebrew and didn’t seem to understand when we spoke English. On the last day of the ulpan, we had a party and the teachers talked in  English — that’s when I realized that they understood English the whole time!

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.