Virginia Thompson has an impact on the lives of many youngsters who study mathematics. She directs a program called Family Math, sponsored by the EQUALS project at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, California. Family Math, which began in 1981, shows parents how to use mathematical games and activities at home to help their kids develop mathematical thinking skills, intuition, and confidence. Through courses and workshops in more than forty states, Canada, Costa Rica, Sweden, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Puerto Rico, Family Math has reached an estimated 100,000 people worldwide.
Many of the parents in Family Math had negative experiences with mathematics, so they appreciate the opportunity to change that for their own children. It is this sense of appreciation that keeps Virginia going. "We [the Family Math staff] do a fair amount of work, but when you have someone really appreciate what you've done, that gives you more energy," she says.
Family Math comprises a wide range of activities that explore ideas of number, logic, and geometry in an informal way that parents and kids can share. The materials are inexpensive household items---paper and scissors, coins, clocks, cups, dice, rulers, calculators. Fun, informal, and intuitive, Family Math activities are nonetheless firmly grounded in mathematical concepts.
Born in Washington, DC, Virginia grew up in San Diego and attended Point Loma High School. Her father had a doctorate in physics and her mother studied toward a master's degree in chemistry, so science activities were common when Virginia was growing up. Her father was especially influential. "He would have been a great mathematics instructor," she notes. "He would never tell you the answer, but led you to figure it out for yourself." After earning a bachelor's degree in mathematics from the University of California at Riverside, Virginia went to the Berkeley campus, where she received a master's degree in statistics. Family Math is an outgrowth of her work in a number of Bay Area programs designed to make mathematics more accessible to all students.
Virginia tells the story of a poor community in rural Alabama where Family Math workshops had been held. To welcome the workshop leader back for a visit, the community organized a 700-person banquet and a contest entitled "What Family Math Means to Us." The winning entry, from an elementary school, was a red, black, and gold quilt made out of shapes called Tangrams, which are used in Family Math activities. Some of the workshop participants were illiterate, Virginia notes, and the mathematics teaching in the community was very traditional. But now, she says, "the whole community is doing math, and feeling good about it."
This brochure was published in 1991, so some information may be out-of-date.