Education

Mental Math Bowl proves math can be both nerve-wracking and fun

April 30, 2015 by Cindy O'Dell
Dr, Joe Walsh reads off a math question to the first round of contestants Friday night at Brandman University in Roseville.

Dr, Joe Walsh reads off a math question to the first round of contestants Friday night in Roseville.

They’re fifth-graders — young enough to be nervous or scared, not always old enough to hide the tears of disappointment.

“Do you realize how many people can’t do this?” It’s a question Dr. Joe Walsh asks every time he holds a Mental Math Bowl. On a Friday night in Roseville, California, audience members (parents, grandparents, siblings) nodded in agreement. The contestants smiled, bit their lips or sighed and redoubled their efforts for the next round of questions.

What is 120 divided by 5.2? Find the mean for these numbers: 6, 6, 6, 6, 5. Sound easy? Did you remember to convert fractions to decimals? Did you do it without a piece of paper and a pencil, while holding a buzzer and looking out on to the expectant faces of parents and other fifth-graders?

By the end of the night the nearly 40 contestants would give way to just six medalists who would be eligible for the Tournament of Champions on May 15 in Roseville. On that Friday night, they’ll be facing the winners from schools throughout the Sacramento area.Walsh has been holding math bowls since he was president of the Math Association in Miami, Florida. He took the concept with him when he went to Mississippi, simplified it and changed it slightly when he moved on to teaching in Long Beach, California, and refined it some more when moving to Roseville to teach at Brandman almost 10 years ago.

Walsh has been holding math bowls since he was president of the Math Association in Miami, Florida. He took the concept with him when he went to Mississippi, simplified it and changed it slightly when he moved on to teaching in Long Beach, California, and refined it some more when moving to Roseville to teach at Brandman almost 10 years ago.

It’s a lot of work, for both the kids and Walsh. He prepares the questions, contacts the schools, explains how it works and then holds each of the bowls. This year, he’s added the Tournament of Champions. At some schools, they hold mental math bowls for all the grades, although only the fifth-graders can advance to the Tournament of Champions. Walsh runs each one, relying on teachers or other volunteers to keep score.

The fifth-graders are grouped in heats of 10. Each child stands at the table, buzzer in hand, trying to be the first to give the correct answer. If you get two right, you drop the buzzer and step back. The first to get two right gets 10 points, the next to get two right gets nine points and so on, until only four contestants remain at the table. Then the entire group returns to the table for the next round of questions, five rounds in all.

How do you get kids interested in math?
• Make them aware of numbers early.
• Take them shopping and compare prices.
• Have them measure toys, books, household items.
• Help them understand time (wait 10 minutes).
• Connect math to sports, which are full of numbers.
Walsh, who grew up in New Jersey and still carries the accent, can sound and look a little gruff, but don’t be fooled. He knows exactly how hard the kids are trying and how hard it can be to hold all those numbers in your head and work out the answers. He also knows that scoring system makes it hard for the kids to know where they stand in the competition, so naming the medalists brings genuine delight.

“Last year I thought a girl would have a heart attack when I called her name,” he says. Earlier Friday at a school in Folsom, California, a young boy broke into a dance. Friday night, most just smiled broadly. When asked about how difficult it was, they universally say, “It wasn’t that hard.” Their delighted parents aren’t so sure.

Walsh gets his love of competition from his youth as a baseball player (he played semi-pro ball for awhile) and from years of coaching basketball at the grade school and middle school level. He also enjoys guiding the next generation of teachers and is especially pleased when he helps a “mathaphobe” get over their fear. He developed Brandman’s math course for the credentially program.

The math bowls give him a chance to reconnect with the classroom, something he loves so much that he left an earlier stint in academia to return to the classroom full time.

“We have so many great kids and we don’t hear about them,” says Walsh, explaining why he keeps at his current demanding schedule. “There’s nothing like this, like competing in front of an audience. This is where you get them excited about math. That’s why I liked teaching the lower grades. You get them started early and they’re not ashamed to say they love math.”

Math is everywhere, says Walsh. He challenges his undergraduate math students at Brandman on the first day of class to come up with something that isn’t mathematical. If they do, they can skip his class. They never can.

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