A blog for enthusiastic math-lovers!

Puzzle Hunt with Pictures!

Have you ever seen a diverse group of sixteen girls of various ages, social backgrounds,  schools from all over the region, and levels of knowledge get together on a perfect, sunny, holiday afternoon to engage in math and solve problems together, sharing a common goal of having fun with math?

Dr. Mary O’Keeffe envisioned such a gathering, dreamt about it for many years, and promoted it. Dr. Ken Fan initiated the SUMiT event at MIT (February 2012) that took out the intimidation and stress of math and turned it into an entertaining adventure (which I participated in and really enjoyed). I combined these two great ideas and embodied them in the First Annual Puzzle Hunt 2012 that took place in the Kenny Center of Union College, Schenectady, NY, on Sunday afternoon, September 2, 2012.

Everything was perfect; the weather, the group of girls that assembled in the room willing to do math, the difficulty of the questions, the timing that it all took, the food, the padlock’s combination, the prizes, the mood, the friendships that were formed and the comradeship.

You could feel the motivation in the room, the willingness of the girls to get together and solve the problems. You could see the concentration on their faces their countenance told a story of its own, and the variety of different approaches to problem solving: some liked to work individually and some enjoyed working as a group. You could see the cooperation: a sister teaching a sister, the older explaining to the younger, a stranger (from an hour ago) sharing with a stranger (no more) the experienced teaching the novice and the menters advising the student organizer.

They used every method possible: counting fingers, drawing diagrams, scrabbling on drafts, cutting paper and thinking near the board.

There was no competition in the room (can you believe math without a competition?!) , no bragging,  no screaming and running around, just quiet talking about math and the willingness to get the mission done: solve the crossword puzzle, unlock the combination lock, and share the prizes. There was only pure determination.

The day ran like this: first, after a quick introduction of meeting purpose, I handed out the problems – six pages worth of different math problems of varying degrees of difficulties.

Quickly, the girls began solving the problems and after half an hour the crossword was nicely filling up. You could see how happy they were when they went up to the  board and wrote in their answers. Every girl had a chance to write an answer on the board.

Using the crossword puzzle, they easily saw when one of the questions was incorrect, and they communicated with others that they didn’t know, bonding over the difficult problems.

When there was about half an hour left, the girls only had three problems left. These problems were the hardest in the set, so they took longer time to solve! We divided the room to three groups and each group tackled its own problem. Working together, each girl gave suggestions based on her previous knowledge and strengths, and the girls successfully finished the crossword puzzle. They were so happy to see it complete! The board was full of colorful numbers!

After a quick snack break, with some delicious goodies compliments of Mrs. Alexandra Shmidt and myself, I told the girls that there was one thing still left to do: they had to open the combination lock and find their prizes!

When I told them they still had to solve a few problems left to do to find the “magic numbers” that opened the lock, everyone groaned! “What, more problems?!” they asked. I reassured them that the problems were very simple and based on the crossword puzzle that they had already completed. When I handed out the last three problems of the day, they were solved! I asked the girls to say the numbers, and in unison, all sixteen girls shouted “20 – 26 – 7”, the correct combination!

One lucky girl got to go up to the front of the room and unlock the box. A hush fell over the crowd as they all watched as she put in the combination and unlocked the box. To the sounds of the Star Wars theme song, all of the girls came up and received their prizes!

Everyone was delighted and had such an amazing time. I could not have been happier!


It was a hard work to organize such an event, but it truly paid off at the end. The key to such organization is to make sure you have every single detail of the day planned out beforehand, from the name tags, to the problems, to the prizes, and even the food.

I came very prepared to this event, and that truly helped it run smoothly. Compiling the problems to fit the crossword puzzle was a lot of hard work and took a long time because I had to check every single question several times for clarity and I had to guess how long it would take a group of girls to solve such problems. I also gave them to outside people to check them and see that I did not make any mistake. It ended up as a great success because it took the girls exactly the amount of time I had planned for and I was sure that my answers were correct.

The hardest part was probably organizing the prizes and making them look great! Even us mathematicians, who love to do math, enjoy a little treat at the end for all of our efforts! I made sure the prizes were cute, colorful, and enjoyable by girls of grades 5 – 9. Each girl got a Rubik’s cube, a wooden puzzle to build and a brain teaser. I had even tangrams for the younger girls that were afraid that they could not handle the more advanced prizes.

The prize at the end tied together everything we had worked on through the day and gave the girls a sense of accomplishment.

The point of this event was to be a stress-free social and educational occasion, that built trust, confidence, and comfort in themselves and in their knowledge in math. It was truly an amazing learning opportunity at the same time!

Unlike math competitions and math tests (MathCounts, AMC, or even just school tests) where everyone works individually on their own set of problems and compete with each other and themselves for better scores, I told the girls that Puzzle Hunt was all about working together and learning from each other: each girl got to contribute her strength and excitement to help the team unlock the box and share the prizes.

“Is it a test that we are going to be working on?” I was asked in the beginning of the afternoon by a few hesitant participants; “No, it is not a test, it is a TEAM PROBLEM SET!”

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