IRA FLATOW, HOST:
OK. Maybe E. O. Wilson's comments in his new book, "Letters to a Young Scientist", essentially says you don't want to have to be great at math to have a career in science, but it can't hurt, right? And to be great at math, it pays to start young, and my next guest is a - has a plan for you. Laura Overdeck is the founder of Bedtime Math. Her mission: to make math friendlier in a way by introducing kids to math problems at an early age.
And here's her plan. You get your kids into their PJs. You tuck them in with a math equation on top of their bedtime story. And you can find a simple - a sample of her bedtime math puzzles on our website at sciencefriday.com/bedtimemath. Laura Overdeck is here with us. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
LAURA OVERDECK: Hi. Thank you.
FLATOW: This is a cute little book. It's a big book. It's nice. You think you can teach math to kids while they're getting their bedtime story?
OVERDECK: Oh, I think absolutely. Where this came from was that my husband and I, we like math, and when our first child was 2, we started rolling in a little math problem with her book at night, just, you know, started with counting the ears and noses on her stuffed animals. It got tougher as she got older. We've rolled in a second child, a third child. And what we found was that, in our house by now, math is like dessert. It's a treat...
FLATOW: Is that right?
OVERDECK: It's a treat the kids want. They actually ask for their math problem at night.
FLATOW: So they didn't say, oh, mommy, you're going to read me a math problem when you first started?
OVERDECK: Well, no. Well, first of all, we never wrote them down. We always did them off-the-cuff...
OVERDECK: ...and they were based on what we had talked about at dinner or funny things that had happened that day.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And how did you get the idea to write the book? Did you say, I did this so many times, I should just put them all into a book and publish it?
OVERDECK: You know, it was actually that friends started hearing we were doing this and said, well, have you thought about sharing them? So, about a year ago, I rounded up 10 or 12 people in town, and I said, OK, I'm going to mail you, I'm going to email you a math problem every night. Try it with your kids and tell me what happens. And within days, people were telling me that their kids were starting to bug them for the math problem every night.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Give me a sample of a math problem. Give us a math problem sample.
OVERDECK: Sure. So, a couple of days ago, we did one on animals that have eight legs. And, you know, how do you walk when you have eight feet without tripping over yourself? So I actually watched a video of a crab walking to see how they do this. There's also a spider video out there. I couldn't bring myself to watch that. That was going to give me nightmares. But I watched the crab one, and there's a pattern.
The four feet on one side go one, three, two, four, and the ones on the other side do the same thing, alternating. So if the pattern is one, five, three, seven, two, six, four eight, and then you do one, five, three again, which leg takes the next step?
FLATOW: There you go.
OVERDECK: And then the bonus was which leg takes the 37th step?
FLATOW: For smart kids. We're talking with Laura Overdeck on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Her book is "Bedtime Math: A Fun Excuse to Stay Up Late." Do you think grown-ups can enjoy it, to learn something when they're reading this to their kids?
OVERDECK: Oh, sure. We actually have a whole crowd of adults who follow our website who do them as a brainteaser.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Do the kids fall asleep if they're thinking about a math problem? Does it get them sleepier or keep them awake?
OVERDECK: You know, I'll tell you, I have three really lively children, so if it can calm them down, it can help anybody. That might have been, actually, how we started doing it.
FLATOW: Now, is there any actual evidence that this actually helps kids be better in math once they...
OVERDECK: Well, you know, I'll tell you, there is a recent study showing that when you do learning at night, you retain it better, and this may be why the bedtime story has survived the centuries and been such a beloved institution.
We actually are doing research ourselves. We did a small study last summer with Boys & Girls Clubs in New Jersey where the kids got a fun math problem every day, and we tested them before and after the six weeks. And while most kids slide two or three months in skills over the summer, we found that 72 percent of these kids actually did better...
OVERDECK: ...at the end of the summer. So we're now doing a study with the University of Chicago for the next five years to see if we can pin down what's happening.
FLATOW: Are there problems in the book for kids of all ages, as they used to say?
OVERDECK: Yes. What we do is we take topics kids love - like anteaters, snowmobiles, chocolate - and each one opens with a little story and maybe some shocking facts, and then the questions are at different levels of challenge. And what's funny is even adults like to start with the wee ones, counting on their fingers and then work their way up.
FLATOW: Do you find that people say, hey, I've got a great book - a subject for you, you ought to put it in your next book? Here's a great...
OVERDECK: Oh, absolutely. I mean, because, you know, we put out a math problem every day on the website.
OVERDECK: We need lots of ideas, and subscribers do send them in, which is awesome.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Do you have any suggestions for people who want to start this? Is there the right way and the wrong way to introduce it to your kid, or you just sit down in bed and say read from the book?
OVERDECK: You know, I think that reading from the book is one way to do it. What's really great is when parents just weave math into the daily routine, into playtime. And I think that a lot of adults have math anxiety and shy away from doing that. Then kids go off to school, and their first introduction to math is school, which is...
OVERDECK: ...homework and drilling. If kids can discover math before they have any preconceived notions, they're just going to be on much better footing.
FLATOW: Yeah. And if they have a teacher, maybe, who'll keep encouraging them, right?
FLATOW: Kids are natural scientists. They're natural born inquisitors. They like to find out about everything, and we just don't have a way of doing it. Maybe your math book can help do that. Have - do teachers use it at all and think about it?
OVERDECK: We do have teachers using it. They say that they warm up the class with a math problem in the morning. We've heard all kinds of stories. There's a bus driver outside Chicago who actually puts the math problem up on a whiteboard on the bus every morning. And he has a bag of Oriental Trading prizes.
OVERDECK: And the first kid on the bus to get it gets to pull something out of the bag. So it's really a movement that's spreading.
FLATOW: That's great. Well, good luck to you in the movement and spreading that movement. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.
OVERDECK: Oh, thank you.
FLATOW: Laura Overdeck, illustrated by Jim Paillot, is that...
FLATOW: Paillot. I'm doing the French version.
OVERDECK: I had to ask him how to say it.
FLATOW: Laura Overdeck with Jim Paillot illustrations, "Bedtime Math: A Fun Excuse To Stay Up Late". It's really cute, nicely drawn, beautiful illustrations in there. Thanks for taking time to be with us today.
OVERDECK: OK. Thank you.
FLATOW: We're going to take a break. And when we come back, were going to Sean Carroll. He's coming with us to talk about the particles - new kind of particle that's discovered, made out of four quarks, something really mysterious, stuff we'd like to talk about on SCIENCE FRIDAY. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.