Math Festivals: Challenging Beliefs and Ways of Engaging with Math

The Santa Cruz County Office of Education (Santa Cruz COE), in collaboration with the Mathematics Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), and  Monterey Bay Area Math Project (MBAMP), organized a Math Festival as part of its inaugural STEAM Expo on March 9, 2024.

The festival, held on a Saturday, provided an inviting opportunity for students from transitional kindergarten through 12th grade to delve into mathematics in a setting that was both enjoyable and supportive. Participants were greeted with enthusiasm by table facilitators and invited to engage with one of six unique and stimulating mathematical puzzles or problems. Historically, math has elicited feelings of fear and anxiety in many, due to factors such as previous negative experiences, perceived difficulty, lack of confidence, high stakes, the expectation to think fast, and fear of failure. These elements can trigger a shutdown response in both young people and adults, perpetuating a cycle of negative emotions and possibly leading to a lifelong aversion to math.

However, the Math Festival demonstrated that the narrative surrounding math can indeed be transformed. Math is not only a beautiful and powerful discipline but also can be approached and understood in ways that are accessible to all. Emphasizing participants’ thinking and valuing the learning that occurs through exploring various approaches—and even making mistakes—helps cultivate a sense of ownership over the learning process and can strengthen mathematical identities.

Each of the festival’s six tables featured a compelling, open-ended math problem (check out the great resources from, and was staffed by a facilitator. These facilitators, ranging from high school students to UCSC undergraduate and graduate math students, represented a diverse array of ages and experiences. They had been coached by the COE to encourage participants to interact with the problems in multiple ways—by manipulating materials, discussing concepts with peers, thinking independently, or posing questions—free from the constraints of time.

One attendee, Maddy, a sophomore from Harbor High School, initially appeared hesitant to approach a table but was soon deeply engaged in solving a problem about dominos, guided by Jennie, a 5th-year PhD student at UCSC. Maddy’s initial reluctance gave way to avid participation, showcasing the festival’s capacity to alter perceptions of math. When her mother suggested taking a lunch break, Maddy responded, “Hold on, mom – I’m in the middle of solving this math problem.”

Kevin Drinkard, the COE Math Coordinator, reflected on the event’s impact, noting, “Math Festivals offer a new lens through which to view math and one’s role within it. They serve as a platform for acknowledging students as adept problem-solvers, which can significantly enhance their confidence, or ‘math mindset.’ Our facilitators, who are among the most proficient mathematicians in our county, find a lot of joy in helping others connect with math in their own way, at their own pace.”

This year, Math Festivals have been held at the STEAM Expo, Alianza Charter School (with 6th graders serving as facilitators), Rolling Hills Middle School, and other locations throughout the County. Aligning with several themes of the new 2023 Math Framework, they represent one avenue through which we can help foster a community of engaged learners and leaders equipped with the social, emotional, and academic skills to succeed in an ever-evolving world.

If you would like to host a Math Festival at your school or site, please contact SCCOE Math Coordinator Kevin Drinkard at