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Psyched to solve for X

Math champ tells parents how to get kids excited about numbers

Kevin Liu gives an interview after his championship performance at the 2015 Raytheon MATHCOUNTS National Competition.

Want to show your kids that math is exciting? Look no farther than Kevin Liu.

Liu is a ninth-grade math master with a lightning-fast mind. He has appeared on national television, schooling Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan in a head-to-head quiz. He is a two-time finalist and 2015 champion of the Raytheon MATHCOUNTS National Competition, a thrilling game-show style showdown.

In an interview with Raytheon.com, Kevin, his father and other experts offered tips on getting other kids excited about math.

PREACH IT: PERSISTENCE PAYS

Remind children who are wrestling with problems that there is a solution – and that finding it will give them a great sense of triumph.  Liu, who tutors fellow students, says he likes to tell them anyone can succeed at math if they’re willing to put in the work.

"There are a lot of challenges in life, and there's going to be a way to overcome that,” Liu said. “If they keep looking for ways that it can get better, then they'll start liking it more."

SIGN UP FOR MATH CLUBS

Math class is like shooting free throws: it develops a fundamental skill. A math clubs, on the other hand, is like playing a pickup game at the park: it puts those skills to work. Children who join math clubs find camaraderie, extra incentives to excel and plenty of opportunities to practice.

"Clubs are really good," Liu said. "A club is probably one of the best ways to get to know kids at school outside the classroom. That is one of my main motivators."

KEEP IT SIMPLE

Teach children that the trick to word problems is looking past all that text and picking out the key questions. Often, what appears to be mind-bending math is often just a series of simple calculations that lead to the answer.

“What you do is just break it down into parts. If you have to do a lot of things … you might just want to break it up into some sections and do them one at a time,” Liu said. “It’s a lot more manageable that way.”

A math-education initiative, MathMovesU, recommends a five-step strategy for solving word problems, and has developed this worksheet to help students practice.

Helping can be as simple as asking your child questions, said Josh Frost, a Massachusetts math teacher who coaches championship MATHCOUNTS teams. “Do you remember doing something similar? Can you imagine a diagram for the problem? What would you do in a similar, but simpler situation?"

PROMOTE THE PAYOFF

Remind children what’s in it for them. Praise good grades now, and tell your children there are more rewards ahead in the form of broad career options and handsome salaries.

“If you can do well in math, you have a wider variety of career options,” said Larry Liu, Kevin’s father. “You can be a statistician, like me. You can be an engineer. These are all very well-paid jobs.”

TAKE IT SLOWLY

Parents who want their children to excel at math may feel tempted to do too much too early. It’s best to ease them into working with numbers, Larry Liu said.

"A lot of parents either start their kids too early on math, or they start too late,” he said. “Sometimes they try to push the kids really hard at a very early age, like first or second grade. You have to start slow and start easy, and go with the kid's interest."

BUILD COOL STUFF

When kids ask when they’re going to use math, tell them the answer is now, and they’ll use it to build robots and rockets. Raytheon-supported robotics and rocketry programs bring math to life.

"When you're working on a whiteboard, that's all you've got. You do a bunch of math and you get the right answer, or the wrong answer, and that's it," said Ric Roberts, a Raytheon engineer and a longtime supporter of high school robotics teams. "When you're building a robot and you have to look at the gear ratios and how many teeth you want to have in your sprocket, it all ties together, and then you actually go and do it and say 'It does work.'"

A new way to study technology after school: Raytheon's new Centers of Innovation initiative, a partnership with Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Under that program, club members will use 3-D printers, video conferencing and other technology to brainstorm ideas and collaborate on community improvement projects.

Ric Roberts, left, an engineer for Raytheon's Space and Airborne Systems business, checks out a student's entry in a robotics competition. Roberts is a longtime supporter of robotics clubs, saying they help students put classroom skills to work. Pictured next to him is Pete Gould, vice president of engineering for Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems.

Hit the books – the storybooks

Use stories to explain abstract math. Author Cindy Neuschwander’s popular Sir Cumference series, for example, uses medieval-era adventure tales to illustrate the principles of basic geometry.

"I read 'Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi' to my son's fourth-grade class, and it was fun to see that 'a-ha' moment, when they understood the concept of Pi because of what they heard in the story,'" said Beth Cavey, who works on Raytheon’s Program Management Excellence team.

Last Updated: 04/26/2016

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