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STEM Activities

STEM Activity: Solve a Math Story Mystery

When you’re studying mathematics, it takes practice to master the skills you need to solve complicated equations and problems.

While math can often present a challenge for different types of learners, Math Storytelling Day, celebrated on Sept. 25, is an opportunity to change your perspective. With this fun activity, you’ll go beyond memorization and concepts to experience math through an exciting story.


Materials Needed:

  • Key
  • Markers
  • Pencil
  • Recyclable materials
  • Scissors
  • Scrap paper
  • Tape


Step-by-Step Instructions:

Part One: Solve the Puzzle

  1. Read the story below:

It was a warm summer night, and Nico and Cali were playing in the backyard when they noticed their cat, Stormy, crawling out of the dining room window. “Nico, did you leave the window open?” Cali asked. “No! Did you?” asked Nico. “Of course not, but we better get her back in the house before she runs off,” Cali exclaimed. Nico and Cali made their way toward Stormy to put her back in the house. As they got closer, Stormy started moving faster. Just as they were about to scoop her up, Stormy sprinted off. Nico and Cali continued to follow Stormy until she made her way to the local toy store. When Stormy reached the door, Nico and Cali couldn’t believe their eyes. Stormy was opening the door and walking inside the shop. As they got closer, they noticed all the neighborhood cats in the store. Some cats were riding in cars, trucks and trains. Some cats were playing board games, and Stormy had made her way to the video games. Nico and Cali knew they had to get a closer look. As soon as they entered the store, the door slammed behind them and the lights went out. Nico turned back toward the door with Cali on his heels. Nico tried to open the door, but it was locked. Nico tried turning the knob and banging on the door. Nothing was working. Cali said, “Let me give it a try.” As she approached the door, a voice from the darkness said, “Turn to your right and solve the riddle below. It requires some math that you should know.” Cali turned to find a clue that read, “The key to your success may be out of reach and far, but with a little math, you will reach it, no matter how bizarre.”

  1. Complete the math problems below. The answer you get for each problem will correspond to a letter of the alphabet.
    TIP: Highlight (on a computer) or select (on mobile) the space after the equals sign to reveal the correct answer.
    • 3+5= 8  A
    • 9-5= 4   E
    • 9-8= 1    R
    • 7-4= 3   B
    • 8-6= 2   G
    • 7x2= 14  S
    • 2+3= 5   C
    • 4+7= 11  K
    • 3x2= 6   Y
  2. Using the key you created above, fill in each number with the corresponding letter below to uncover the hidden message.
    TIP: Highlight (on a computer) or select (on mobile) the space above each number to reveal the correct letter associated with it.

K   E   Y      G   R  A  B   B   E  R
11   4   6      2   1   8   3   3   4   1


  1. Congratulations! You solved the puzzle with the secret message you uncovered. Now move to Part Two to invent an object that will help Nico and Cali escape the toy store.


Part Two: Invent a Solution

  1. With help from an adult, place your key up high and out of reach, like on top of a shelf, a tall cabinet or the refrigerator.
  2. Brainstorm ideas for an invention to grab your key. To get started, ask yourself a few questions:
    • How long does my invention need to be?
    • How will it grab the key?
    • Will it drop the key or hold onto it?
  3. Pick one of your favorite ideas and sketch your design on scrap paper.
  4. Once you have your design, build a prototype (model) using recyclable materials, scissors and tape.
  5. Test your prototype and ask yourself the following questions:
    • Were you able to reach the key and retrieve it?
    • Did it work as you intended? Are there changes you need to make?
    • How can you use this information to make modifications and continue to develop your prototype?
  6. Make any modifications you choose based on your answers, then use markers to add creative designs to your prototype.
  7. Have fun finding new ways to use your invention or improve upon it!


What Are We Discovering?

Learning math is more engaging and meaningful when you combine calculations with storytelling. The technique you practiced in this activity connects mathematical concepts with real-world situations and allows for a better understanding of mathematics and its applications in our lives. It also helps us learn how to communicate ideas while encouraging creativity, critical thinking skills and problem-solving strategies.

Many inventors have used these skills to solve real-world mathematical problems. National Inventors Hall of Fame® Inductees Howard Aiken, Clair Lake, Francis Hamilton and Benjamin Durfee showed that a computer could provide high-powered, speedy mathematical solutions to many math problems.


Keep the Fun and Learning Going!

For more hands-on, at-home STEM fun, visit our blog.

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