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Let’s Eat (or Divide) Cake

Written by Kelley O’Brien, T2T-I Associate Director, Carrboro, N.C., U.S.

It was not until I was 20 years old that I learned to love math. This epiphany occurred during a game theory class I took from Professor Hollingsworth at University of Georgia (yes, I still remember his name). I discovered that math was everywhere, and that I was actually pretty skilled at using it. I think there are a lot of us, especially women, who believe we are “bad at math” until someone shows us differently.


Kelley O'Brien and Mary Ollila

T2T-I Associate Director Kelley O’Brien (left) and T2T-I team member Mary Ollila on their first trip to Guatemala, March 2016.


Imagine if those dreaded hours of math lectures were replaced with this: You walk into the classroom and your teacher has meticulously placed a “cake” made of blocks at the center of the room. As you take your seat, she entices you with this interactive story about a party.

She asks, “What type of cake shall we bake for our party? Chocolate?”

The class erupts in unison, “Chocolate!”

“What else do you want with the cake?” the teacher asks.

“Whipped cream! Caramel! Strawberries!” the class yells out in mouthwatering anticipation.

Your teacher tells you that this delicious cake we have baked, which is represented by blocks right in front of her, is divided into 20 pieces. You learn that there are twice as many boys as girls coming to the party, and each boy gets one piece of cake. There are half as many girls than boys coming to the party, and each girl gets two pieces of cake. The final detail is that the partygoers eat the entire cake.


“How many boys are at this party?” she queries. “How many girls?” You crowd around the blocks, moving them into servings of cake while complaining that girls eat too much. Then you figure out the answer to the question!


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First grade teacher and students at the New Hope School in Guatemala.


That’s the math I saw in a first grade classroom in Nueva Esperanza, a community north of Guatemala City. I could see that cake. I wanted to eat that cake. And, I’m sure that the six-year-olds by my side had the same thoughts. It was real and meaningful for them. How can you get more high stakes than chocolate cake topped with caramel, whipped cream, and strawberries?

Sticky Math

Most of all, this math lesson will stick, and not just because it included an imaginary concoction of gooeyness. These students learned that they are mathematicians. Something that I wish I had grasped long before I was 20 years old.

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