What to do tonight: Math and fun add up in documentary

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Two people leave for the Alloy Studios in Friendship at the same time. One is traveling in a car at 25 mph and the other is in a car going 35 mph.

When do they start learning that math can be fun?

The answer is 6 p.m., when Martha Riecks presents the documentary "The Biggest Story Problem: Why America's Students are Failing at Math."

Ms. Riecks, of Highland Park, is co-producer and story consultant for the film and will be there for the screening and to answer questions from educators and parents.

"The goal tonight is to raise awareness about the project and invite people to make donations toward distribution of the film," Ms. Riecks said. "We want to mail it out to 20,000 middle schools."

The film is the result of a two-year effort that began when Scott Laidlaw, a New Mexico middle school teacher, developed a video game to help get kids interested in math. The game, called "Ko's Journey," uses the ancient approach of teaching through storytelling.

Mr. Laidlaw and others formed a company called Imagine Education and pursued a half-million dollar grant from Next Generation Learning Challenges -- a foundation backed by Bill and Melinda Gates -- to document the use and effectiveness of "Ko's Journey." Using the Internet, the group turned to Ms. Riecks for help writing the grand application.

"We got connected online and I just kept working with them," said Ms. Riecks, who had a background in teaching in science, technology, engineering and math.

"They were looking for a grant writer, and then when they found out about my background in education, it was a perfect fit."

While trying to teach the lesson, the moviemakers learned a lesson.

The documentary evolved into much more than just the story of "Ko's Journey." It became focused on why America's students are failing at math, focusing on the middle school range, fifth through seventh grades.

Assistant producer Kate Martin, of Taos, N.M., said they explored how to change kids' viewpoints from "This is boring. When am I ever going to use this in life?" to "Hey, this is fun. I got this."

"We went all over the nation, and we discovered it was happening everywhere," Ms. Martin said. "We wanted to dig further into the problem of why they were doing so poorly on international test scores. We went to Finland to see what they were doing right. We interviewed several math experts, essentially trying to get down to the core issue -- of which we found there were several."

Those are the issues will be the subject of tonight's gathering.

"It's not just 'Ko's Journey,' " Ms. Martin said. "It's the way 'Ko's Journey' teaches, the way it's integrating the math into a story. Rather than 'two plus two equals four,' you get to blow up an asteroid and move forward. We show that learning can be fun. Learning is an innate thing. People want to learn."

The Alloy Studios is at 5530 Penn Ave. There is no charge to attend, but donations are being sought to help distribute the DVD to schools.

Or you can go to thebiggeststoryproblem.com and look into sponsoring a DVD for a school.

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If you have a suggestion for something to do some evening, let us know about it and we'll see if we can get some of our friends to join you. Contact Dan Majors at dmajors@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1456. This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/


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