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Beyond Calculation: Zap Camp Enlivens Math for Kids

Mankato area Zap camp participants get some real-world experience in mathematics.

By Jessica Bies, Mankato Free Press

Photos by John Cross

Mankato, Minn. -- Flexing and folding the stiff, pink and blue paper, the small group of middle schoolers turned the hexagons inside out and then right side in again.

Ashley Priem, a lower-level mathematics instructor at Minnesota State University, told them the mathematical toy's name, tripping on the word slightly as she put emphasis on each syllable.

“Tri-hexa-flexa-gon,” she said, holding one up.

Flexagons, which star in several popular YouTube videos, are made from folded strip of paper and can be flexed to reveal a number of hidden faces. Trihexaflexagons have six different faces.

They can be used to teach students about geometry and help them understand simple polygons and other important shapes. They're also just plain fun to make, Priem said. Which made them a perfect object to feature in this year's two-day mathematical Zap Camp.

“I just hope the kids are as excited about them as I am,” Priem said.

Zap Camp is sponsored by the Minnesota Center for Excellence in Manufacturing and Engineering, which is based at Minnesota State University. The center is a consortium of two-year colleges throughout Minnesota and is focused on developing an interest in engineering and math among middle school, high school and college-age students.

Zap Camp strives to the same by offering three separate summer camps for kids who have completed grades 6 through 8. The first camp was held in June and gave students the chance to learn more about engineering. The second, held Monday and today, focused on mathematics. During the third, to be held Aug. 12, the kids will get to build their own robot.

Priem, who has been an instructor at MSU for three years now, kicked off the mathematics camp by asking the group of 11 students, “What do you think of when you think of math?”

Many of the students told her math was about calculating sums or adding numbers. Priem said she sees math differently — it also involves recognizing patterns, solving challenging puzzles and developing strategy.

“My goal through this camp is to show them it’s so much more than computations,” Priem said.
Maryam Ibrahim, an eighth-grade student at Dakota Meadows Middle School in Mankato, said this was her second year attending MSU’s ZAP camps. Last year she participated in all three summer courses, including the two on engineering and robotics.

She said the classes make science, technology, engineering and math, which are 'sometimes' fun on their own, more exciting.

“We’re pretty much just learning about math and playing games,” Ibrahim said.
Josh Landgraff, a seventh-grader at Dakota Meadows, said Preim was showing them a new way to do math.

“You’re not just doing problems on a sheet or something,” Landgraff said. “It's fun.”

“I like dealing with kids,” Manfo said. “I like see how they think about stuff, but I like seeing their failings, too … It helps you see why the person taking calculus struggles with either this or that.”

To sign up for the Aug. 12 robotics Zap Camp, call 507-387-5501 or visit The cost is $20 and space is limited to 20 students. The camp runs from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

The entire version of this story can be read in a print copy of the Mankato Free Press. Call the Mankato Free Press at 625-4451 or (800) 657-4662 to find out how to purchase a print copy. The Free Press also prints select stories online at

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