cut-n-fold polyhedra, or providing a drink of water when I can hear Eldest's voice starting to go.
Right now they're learning about game theory using Skittles. I don't know half of what Eldest is talking about, but I'm used to that; I've been superfluous to her math education since she was ten.
I had some correspondence recently with a reporter from Newsweek who is writing an article about how to encourage girls in STEM subjects (science, math, etc.). Eldest didn't want to do an interview; she had enough of fame as "the brilliant one" in high school, and is happy being an anonymous brain at her brainy college.But this is what I told the reporter:
We did lots of things to nurture Eldest's innate passion for math -- online courses like eIMACS and EPGY, programs from Art of Problem Solving, a local math circle -- but in retrospect there are two things that worked particularly well.
The first was that we always drew a distinction between computational skill and conceptual ability. Kids can grasp many higher-level concepts long before they master the ability to actually do the number crunching. And since schools take forever to get past basic number operations, many bright kids get bored with math before they ever get to the good stuff. It's possible to provide brain food separately. There are fine books to have around the house: picture books by Greg Tang, the classic Math for Smarty Pants by Marilyn Burns, The Number Devil by Hans Enzensberger, The Ten Things All Future Mathematicians and Scientists Must Know (But are Rarely Taught), How to Lie with Statistics and so on. (For even higher-level math, browse the resources here.)
The second, and most important thing we did was to get Eldest a "math friend". When Eldest was nine we hired Alison, a high school junior and math afficionado, to come over one afternoon a week. My instructions to Alison were that I didn't care what topics they covered, I just wanted her to nurture Eldest's love of mathematics.
Alison taught Eldest to do calculations in different bases, and they did cool Fibonacci stuff, and even some baby calculus. It was awesome. Alison was thrilled to earn $10 an hour (minimum wage back then was about half that), I was thrilled to get a young woman to mentor my child at a reasonable rate, and Eldest was thrilled to have the complete attention of a big girl who shared her passion. Win-win-win.
Alison came every week, and then twice a week in the summer. When she went off to college, she came home and taught Eldest whatever she'd learned that semester: symbolic logic, topology, and things I'd never heard of. She discovered there was a market for doing 'cool math' and started her own tutoring business. After graduation she went on to teach math in a private school.
When I first broached the idea of doing a math camp for girls this summer, Eldest said doubtfully, "Do you really think anyone would come?" Well, yes. With all the focus on standardized tests these days, it's the fun, hands-on, make-ya-think math that has evaporated from schools. And middle school is exactly when it's important for girls to get some reinforcement that it's cool to like math.
I only have one mathy child, so my experience in nurturing a math passion is based on n=1. (My other kids are quite competent, but do not have the blazing passion for math that Eldest has had since she was little.) YMMV, and feel free to ask questions.