The Mathematics Bake Off Results!

The first event I attended at the Festival of Creative Learning was wonderful! The coming events have a high bar to meet, both in the enthusiasm and the knowledge displayed by the students. Although the Bake Off was small in numbers it was very large in heart. Five students accepted the challenge to bake an item that demonstrated a mathematical concept, and then present and explain the item:


From the top left, we have Infinity, demonstrated with a cake that is cut in half, and cut in half again, and again, and again, etc. etc.; to the right is the winner: Gaussian Theory plotting (more on that later); then algebra as pastry, complete with angles and lines; and finally knot theory bread.

Friends (and colleagues I guess) know that I am somewhat math-challenged, and so for me to start the week with math may have seemed a surprising choice. But really, this is exactly what this week — and my grant — is all about: Teaching “outside the box.” The winner of the challenge, as determined by a panel of three that thankfully did not include me, was created by an undergraduate student from Slovakia named Marco. In his presentation he really took time to explain the theory behind Gaussian distribution and how the icing represented the plots lines as they follow the contours of the surface. Okay, so I still couldn’t hold a conversation on this topic. But during his quick presentation, I did have moments of “aha!”  And isn’t that what good teaching is all about?

I unfortunately do not have a close up of the winner, because we started eating it before the judges returned so we didn’t know it was the winner.  Same with the algebra model. But I do have one of the Infinity Cake:


And my personal favorite: Knot Theory Bread:


First of all, although I guess I knew there was such a thing as knot theory? Did I really? No, I am lying. I had no idea. But not only is it a very real thing, studied very diligently by people such as Imogene, who baked this bread, it is all around us. Indeed, it is IN us, in the very knots that are in our DNA. As in, our DNA helix.

The presentations lasted about 40 minutes, and then we all talked for about an hour about the ideas behind the various baked goods, what the students were studying, and a variety of related topics. For example, in this small gathering of only about 10 people there were PhD’s, post docs, and undergrads all enthusiastically talking about their projects and their studies. The baked goods were a great starting point to thinking about teaching and learning in general and how doing practical things like this challenge is so effective in teaching concepts.

Tomorrow I attend an all-day TEDx event called “It Starts with Passion,” (  which should also be very interesting. But these students — wow!


Author: suejohnston2017

Sue Johnston is an Instructional Designer at the University of Maryland. She focuses on promoting accessible and inclusive learning in online learning. She is not actually a very good pool player but is willing to give any game a try.

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