Preview course

Last Thursday at Nelson Mandela was a day for each club to offer a so-called “Schnupperkurs” — a miniature, preview course that allows kids to check out the club and decide whether they’re interested in signing up. Despite a last-minute space conflict, I set up in a classroom with a pile of math books, a few printed articles about people like Vi Hart and Britney Gallivan, and a stack of paper.

As kids came in, I asked them how many times they thought they could fold a piece of paper in half. Most had estimates between 10 and 20, though Benjamin (and his buddy from class, also named Benjamin) guessed 100 and 50, respectively (optimistic boys). I then told the kids that I was offering 20 Euros to anyone who could fold a piece of paper in half at least 10 times. That got their attention, and many were very energetically trying their best — even, in some cases, sitting on the paper to try to get past the sixth or seventh fold. After everyone had more or less satisfied themselves that 6 or 7 was the max, at least with the paper we were using, I asked them why they thought this was. Some suggested that the size and the thickness of the paper could be issues, and that we might get farther with a larger piece of paper. Most kids also intuitively understood that the stack of paper gets thicker, but hadn’t necessarily thought about how much thicker or how fast. So I started folding a piece myself, and asking them to tell me how many sheets I was folding now (2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64…) And I wrote out the powers of 2 up to 216, just to show how quickly one would be folding really large numbers of sheets.

I was also aiming to impress them with Britney Gallivan’s story, and I think I did. Many ears perked up when I told them that “this girl became really famous in school when she figured out how to fold a piece of paper 12 times”, and even developed a formula giving the necessary thickness and paper size for any desired number of folds. I was especially interested in them hearing that this was a girl, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that nearly half of the kids who wandered in were girls. I’m really trying to fight the gender bias right off the bat, without being too blunt about it. It’s wonderful to be able to show the kids examples of girls and women who are doing cool stuff in math.

This week I expect to get the full list of who has signed up for the club, and I’ll need to decide who gets in. I’m really looking forward to our first full meeting!

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