By Tiffany Whitfield

When you take 400 students from across Hampton Roads and add fun plus STEM, you get the third annual Old Dominion University Julia Robinson Math Festival.

On Feb. 29, students took a leap into math.

"The theme was 'L.E.A.P. - Learn, Engage, Accelerate, Prepare - and we are super excited," said Katie Smith, ODU research associate at Virginia Modeling Analysis & Simulation Center (VMASC) and organizer of the Festival.

As parents and students walked into the Webb Center a sum of "X" characters topped tables filled with activities.

"The whole idea and reason we made our X's as characters is because people hit algebra and think math is now unassociated with anything in real life, and it's the opposite," said Blair Swoope, lecturer in the Department of Mathematics & Statistics co-organizer of the festival. "You can't do anything in real life without numbers."

A total of 11 STEM-based activities were designed with multiple levels "so that kids all the way from the third grade to the eighth grade could have fun," Swoope said.

Students multiplied, added, subtracted, estimated and reasoned for hours.

"It was a pleasure to see kids really engaged with and excited to be learning mathematics," Smith said.

Children teamed with their parents or the student sitting next to them and built ships, learned through virtual reality or used manipulatives like light switches, candy and beans to do math. Students lined up for a chance to steer a sphere-shaped robot ball named Sphero along shapes taped to the floor with an iPad.

Regardless of the math level, students had access to STEM activities through play.

"We have simple activities that look like they're coloring, but also require problem solving and logistical thinking and sequential thinking," Swoope said.

X's marked the spot for learning and doing math.

"ODU's Julia Robinson Math Festival emphasized more on collaboration than competition and encourages participants to help each other," said Hideaki Kaneko, ODU Mathematics & Statistics chair.

Students high-fived their partners and laughed when they learned a new math strategy.

"They are capable of learning the 'M' in STEM," Swoope said.

Volunteers came from ODU faculty and students; Newport News Shipbuilding; VMASC; Regent University; Tidewater Community College Chesapeake campus; teachers and guidance counselors from Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Norfolk and Virginia Beach public schools; Chesapeake Bay Academy; Landstown High School students; and the R-E-A-D mentoring program.

"I hope we are helping to remove the stigma that surrounds this critical STEM subject," Smith said.

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