FIM News

First In Math Champions, Then and Now: James O'Shea

EASTON, PA—Eight years ago, eighth-grader James O'Shea outperformed more than 500,000 of his peers to claim the title of #1 Player Nationwide—all grades—in the First In Math® Online Program for the 2009-2010 school year. It was his third and final appearance in the prestigious National Top Ten.

In 2010 and in 2018 - James O'Shea and Robert Sun 
James O'Shea and First In Math creator, Robert Sun - 2010 and 2018

Fast-forward to 2018. O’Shea, home from college on winter break, is sitting across the table from one of his mentors, creator of the First In Math online program, Robert Sun, reminiscing about his FIM days and discussing future plans.

The busy Economics and Pre-Health double major graduates from Notre Dame in the Spring, where he is also an undergrad Teaching Assistant for both biology and statistics. “It's crazy how time has passed so quickly since my days playing First In Math. I was looking through the website the other day, and it's incredible how much it has changed. There are so many more games and topics for kids to explore. It's great how big the program has become, and its user base has exploded.”

O'Shea is a member of Omicron Delta Epsilon, one of the world's largest academic honor societies, and will attend medical school at Thomas Jefferson University after graduation. “I'm so excited, becoming a physician has always been my long-term goal,” says O'Shea. “I'm very fortunate to be attending right out of college.

Sun invited him to take a peek at some new games in development, including coding activities in the new Computational Thinking (CT World) module. “I'm very excited that First In Math is including a coding aspect on the site; through my coursework, I've found that it's incredibly applicable across all fields. I just took a coding class this past semester. I wasn't supposed to be there because it was a IT majors-only class, but I was persuasive,” laughs O’Shea. “I learned about R and SQL and fell in love with it.”

But he says he’ll never forget the skills he practiced—and the fun he had—with First In Math. “When I saw my little brother Justin at the airport, the first thing he said to me was, ‘James! Guess how many stickers I have in First in Math!’ and wow, that brought back a lot of fond memories. My parents never forced me to compete, I did it because it was fun challenging myself, and it’s the same for Justin. He told me that he is top 20 in the nation for all grades and I'm so proud of him, he's been working really hard. He’s a third grader, and already well known as the ‘First in Math guy’ at his school.

Sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

First In Math Helps Retired Army Veteran
And Family Look to the Future

RIALTO, CA—At First In Math we receive letters, emails and phone calls every day. Some contain constructive criticism, some contain praise, and some touch our hearts in remarkable ways. One such email was forwarded to us by Eva Serrato, Academic Agent, Math/Science and College & Career Pathways for the Rialto Unified School District.

Sgt. H. and his wife. “I always get the credit for my service, but she watches over me in ways no one else would and really makes it all happen.”

In a communication to Dr. Monte Stewart, Principal of Elizabeth T. Hughbanks Elementary in Rialto, a happy parent shared that he was very excited his son received a First In Math Online program User ID and Password. “Thank you soooooooooooooo much for Michael’s account,” wrote US Army Sgt. H. “I'm ecstatic, as this program has given me a purpose since being home with my children.”

Sgt. H., who always wanted to be an engineer, joined the Army National Guard in 2000 as an Infantryman and was activated to Kuwait after the 9/11 attack. He did three combat tours in Iraq, but in 2006 was severely injured when his vehicle was hit by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device).

He awoke in a Baghdad ER with little to no memory of the attack or the days leading up to it. Severe injuries left his memory extremely compromised and his high-level maths skills nearly extinct. The combat veteran, who used to deal with calculus and trigonometry, was left barely able to do multiplication.  “I didn’t arrive home the same. PTSD, TBI, chronic pain, you name it, I had/have it. I fight each day to overcome these obstacles.”

In 2017, he was medically retired, having served nearly 17 years. “A that point I was doing all I could to hang on to what I knew,” explains Sgt. H. “I went from being a frontline, hardened, combat-infantry soldier to learning how to be a full-time, stay-at-home dad on a fixed income. And I thought combat was tough!”

He didn’t leave the house very often, but one day his wife convinced him to attend a school award presentation “Some kids got a First In Math Award and they were talking about ‘stickers’ and things I didn't understand. I thought, what is this program every teacher is praising? So, I got on First In Math and went through every game I could, learning everything I could about it when, like an explosion—pun intended—it hit me! I remembered I used to be able to do high levels of maths.”

“I realized that it's the basics that matter, the foundation that counts, so from that point on my son Joshua and I did all we could to challenge ourselves on First In Math. I know that life is a process full of growth potential and littered with constant failures, and it will take hard work and effort to overcome those failures. But we were determined to have fun, enjoy the program, and most important appreciate our precious time here on earth together.”

“I'm still unable to recall and hold onto many things, but through much practice, effort, hard work and time—and the support of my beautiful wife and mother of our six children—I'm grateful just for the opportunity to remember any little things and be in the present with my family.”

A few months later at the next awards presentation, Joshua was awarded a FIM plaque for being #1 in the Rialto Unified School District among all grades! He was also ranked #1 in the State and #7 in the Nation at his grade level. “This year, he’s currently #1 in CA among third graders,” says the proud father, noting that Hughbanks recently promoted him to fourth-grade maths.

Sgt. H. explains that the letter he wrote to Dr. Stewart was about Joshua’s younger brother, Michael, who is now five, and loving First In Math. “He’s doing addition and subtraction easily and going strong because of the inspiration and hard work of his brother, I am so proud of him.” But this dedicated dad says that it wasn't until he saw his kids using First In Math that it inspired him to get back on the horse and relearn maths.

“First In Math gave me a platform to work with. I tried flash cards, other programs, everything and just lost hope because nothing worked. FIM was the direction and guide I needed to help me teach and guide my children. It is great therapy for me daily watching my children excel in the knowledge I lost years ago.”

 “Sgt. H.’s story is so inspiring, and I applaud his incredible courage,” says Dr. Stewart. “As educators, we may not always realize how one small action we take—or curriculum support we offer—can impact the lives of others. Hearing something like this only strengthens my commitment to the school and to every student, one child at a time.”  

Editor’s note: In the interest of privacy, we have been asked to substitute “Sgt. H.” in place of an actual name, and we deeply respect Sgt. H.’s desire to dedicate this piece “to my fallen brother and sisters, to those still faithfully serving and who have served—both in military and public safety—I wake up every day thanks to them.”

Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays - 2017

First in Math Honors Mountain View Success

FLANDERS, NJ—Mountain View Elementary School was recently honored by the First In Math program. The online math-practice website tasks students with grade-specific math challenges and, as of June 19, 2017, Mountain View students had solved more than 7.75 million of them!

 First in Math Honors Mountain View Success
Aradha Jain, Mountain View's top student in First in Math, shows off the school's plaque with Principal Frank J. Fischel, Ed.D.

The Mt. Olive Township District school ranked #1 in New Jersey and #2 in the nation based on the number of math problems solved per student, and the school has been in the FIM Top Ten in the U.S. every year since beginning the program in 2013.

“I’m so proud of what our kids have accomplished,” said Dr. Frank Fischel, Mountain View principal. “So much of our success is due to teachers keeping excitement high and contributing to the recognition program that rewards students for their personal achievements. The friendly competitive spirit that First In Math has helped engender is now part of who we are as a school.”

While they are home to the country’s top third grade class, Mountain View’s success in FIM is a school-wide achievement, thanks to a high level of participation among many students—not just a few driven kids or classes.

Aradha Jain, a fifth-grader in Peg Maute’s class, is Mountain View’s top student with more than 11,000 correctly-solved math problems. Rounding out the school’s top 15 are Riley Cahill, Vrishank Malik, Abhimanyu Nair, Nelith Siriwardhana, Ethan You, Ryan Schafer, Eesha Bosula, Robert Cahili, Sam Mirsky, Chris Pintado, Anthony Walsh, Sal Salafia, Mo Alabssi, and Jenna Klatt. 

How important is math achievement—and the First In Math National Top Ten School award—to the students and faculty? The plaque celebrating their success remains on display in the main office, indefinitely.

Harvard Medical Engineering and Medical Physics Student Isha Jain Receives 2017 Weintraub Award

CAMBRIDGE, MA—In March, Harvard-MIT Health Sciences & Technology Medical Engineering and Medical Physics PhD student, Isha Jain, became one of only thirteen graduate students, worldwide, selected to receive the 2017 Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award.

Isha Jain
Left: 2017 Weintraub Award Winner and Harvard PhD candidate Isha Jain. Middle: 15-year-old Isha wins a prestigious Intel Award. Right: A young Isha hoists the 2003 PA State Platinum Masters trophy she won in Harrisburg.

"It is such an honor to receive this award,” says Jain, who is originally from Bethlehem, PA. “It is really nice to have validation that you are working on interesting research problems that will hopefully one day have a biomedical impact. Disease relevance and the hope for therapies is the reason I am so drawn to science." Jain works in the lab of Professor Vamsi Mootha, focusing on mitochondrial disease.

The Weintraub Award recognizes outstanding achievement during graduate studies in the biological sciences. A committee of individuals from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center selects awardees based on the quality, originality and significance of their work.

Jain shares a special connection to First In Math, via her participation in—and domination of—the 24® Game Pennsylvania State 24 Challenge Championships in 2003. Barely big enough to hoist the Platinum Masters Division Championship trophy she won as a 7th-grader, Jain impressed everyone with her focus and determination. Among them was 24® Game and First In Math® creator Robert Sun.

“There are a few ‘24 kids’ who make such a lasting impression that they are remembered even after many years have passed,” says Sun. “Isha is one of them.”

“As a sophomore at Freedom High School, Isha placed fourth in the Zoology category of the Intel International Science and Engineering Research Fair,” recalls Sun. “She was quick to credit the role that maths skills played in her award-winning research.”

Son of Florida Math Teacher Shines
On “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire”

WESTON, FL (USA)—Marc Horowitz is a former maths teacher and current Curriculum Specialist at Indian Trace Elementary who has shepherded many children on to success, but none more so than his own son, who recently appeared as a contestant on the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire game show.

Charles Horowitz

According to Horowitz, the adventure began when he sent in an application for his son to audition for the show.  “When we were contacted, we were in shock,” laughs Horowitz. “Charles interviewed and auditioned via Skype, and before we knew it, he was chosen to be a contestant on the show.”

Horowitz says the experience was an incredible one, from stepping onto the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire stage in Las Vegas for the first time, to meeting host Chris Harrison.  “Every step of the process was exciting, although a bit nerve wracking.”

Charles was decidedly less nervous, and enjoyed being on stage. “Even though I experienced how stressful facing the cameras can be, I was confident, because my friends supported me the entire way, saying they knew I would do great.”

His appearance on the show created a lot of buzz, but a clip of Charles solving a difficult maths problem went viral nationwide after it was posted on the show’s Instagram account. (View clip here)

So where did Charles learn the ‘mad skills’ that Harrison spoke of after the 13-year-old calculated the correct solution to a difficult a math problem? His proud father takes some credit, but says he had an ally in the process.

“I strongly believe that First in Math was a driving force in my son’s early academics, as he participated in the program for four years,” explains Horowitz, whose classroom teams placed #1 in national competition in both 2009 and 2010. “First In Math helped him build the basics for all functions of maths, as well as algebra and solving for variables.”

According to Horowitz, one of the best things about First In Math is the fact that it is an enriching activity. “That means I was able to go beyond what was instructed in class with Charles, and with many of my other students, as well.”

Charles is now 14 years old. His hobbies include playing the clarinet, participating in National Junior Honor Society projects, and participating in environmental volunteer work around his school.

What does Charles think about his brief brush with stardom? “There are a lot of behind-the-scenes things I learned about—and it was one of the best experiences of my life!” Final Answer.

Changing the Shape of Learning

by Robert Sun

Learning is often viewed as a linear process. First, the thinking goes, students must be convinced they can complete a task. For kids who question their ability to learn, this is a big stumbling block. It puts the onus on teachers to find ways to overcome doubt, negative self-image and prior failures.

Robert Sun with Students

Next, teachers are expected to discover a way for children to become self-motivated. They must show their students a connection to prior learning, or find an intrinsic appeal in the subject matter. Only after these two steps have been accomplished are students considered ready to move on to the final step: learning something new.

The drawback with this approach is its narrow perspective. It places too many steps in sequence, with too many preconditions. Loaded with roadblocks, it makes effective learning difficult. A better model is to think of instruction not as a straight line but as a circle, with entry possible at any spot along the circumference.

Such a model is not only more flexible, but also more inviting to children of varying interests and abilities. Now “do” can be an entry point—as well as “want to do.”

A circular model also increases the ways in which a child can be motivated. The video game industry has used this paradigm to great effect, changing the culture of an entire generation.

Video games succeed because of their non-threatening, open, and self-reinforcing approach to acquiring new skills. First In Math’s digital content is designed to exploit the circular nature of learning using the same key attributes of popular video games: comprehensive content; multiple points of entry; high engagement; a seamless gradient of challenges; a sense of control; short cycle of play and the freedom to make mistakes.

When correctly applied, the circular pattern provided by digital learning games on the First In Math site can actually become a spiral, leading to ever-higher levels of math achievement. As all teachers know, negative attitudes can be self-reinforcing in children. The short cycle of play in a digital game, however, can solve the problem. One quick success presents the child with a question: “Do I go away, or do I continue?” Most will choose the Start button and continue.

When children admit to themselves, “I can do this,” it introduces a new feeling based on the natural response to previous success. Instead of worrying about the threat of a bad grade or a negative reaction from their teacher or parent, kids now think, “I did better than I thought I could, and perhaps I’ll do as well next time.” After working three decades with children and mathematics, my experience confirms that it is not motivation that creates action, but taking action that creates the motivation to do more.

Before long, success eliminates fear. A new perspective takes hold, and the spiral of progressive achievement becomes a reality.

There is no magic formula for maths success, but a top-quality tool like First In Math can provide an environment for the most overlooked aspect of maths instruction: practice. Like playing soccer or learning the piano, math is a skill that requires practice. When all the right attributes are in place, a digital game for math practice can be immensely effective. It’s up to us to provide that welcoming environment—and then let kids do what they do best: explore and learn for themselves.

ROBERT SUN is the CEO of Suntex International and inventor of First In Math, an online program designed for energizing every child to learn, love and live mathematics.

Robert Sun Speaks to Parents, Students
At Calypso Family Math Night

BETHLEHEM, PA—First In Math® creator Robert Sun visited Calypso Elementary and spoke with a crowd of more than 180 guests at the school’s Family Math Night. Pre-K through fifth-grade students and their parents, grandparents and siblings listened intently as Sun told them how math played an integral role in his unconventional journey to success.

Robert Sun visits Calypso ES
Inventor Robert Sun shared graphics of the new First In Math VIFs™ module, as well as personal photos, that help explain his journey to success.

Sun emigrated from China to West Philadelphia at age nine. One of four children being raised by a single parent, he struggled to learn English, but eventually connected to others through math.

Sun would go on to earn an Engineering degree from the University of Pennsylvania, but decided his true calling was to help students succeed in math. He invented the 24® Game in 1988, debuted the First In Math® Online Program in 2002, and has now introduced an addition to the First In Math arsenal—the Very Important Facts™ (VIFs™) System—to provide students with a strong base of knowledge in foundational math skills.  

After Sun spoke, students were given the opportunity to go to different tables—each table had games for them to play that were grade appropriate, including some from the 24® Game series. Student volunteers from Moravian College were stationed at the tables to help everything run smoothly.

Students could also go into the library to use Chromebooks and play First In Math, where FIM Project Coordinator Nancy Kane worked with students, parents and grandparents. “I had fun teaching families how to log in to First In Math at home,” says Kane. “At the end of the night, each family was given a 24® Game Anniversary Edition and a 24® Game bookmark to tie into Calypso’s Family Reading Night.”

Kane enjoyed the Reading Night posters of the children’s favorite stories displayed throughout the school. “They were very creative, well thought out and very artistic, clearly a lot of effort was put into them. It brought back memories of when my boys were young and were reading some of the same titles.”

According to Principal Kathy Bast, Calypso is the smallest school in the Bethlehem Area School District. It is truly a neighborhood school and retains a great sense of community.  “We understand that it makes for a long day when we hold this type of event in the evening, but it demonstrates how truly dedicated our families are, and how important their child’s education is to them.” Bast’s own daughter attends Palmer Elementary, but joined her mom after school so she could meet Sun.

Junior Journalists Report on First In Math

TELFORD, PA—Souderton Area School District’s Vernfield Elementary has a digital newspaper run by eager students and an amazing teacher, Cindy Edgar.

Young authors from Vernfield ES
Young authors (l to r) Tyler Lutz, Connor Klock, Brycen Clarke

Recently, three fourth-grade students—Brycen Clarke, Connor Klock and Tyler Lutz—asked to interview one of the school’s biggest First In Math proponents, Vernfield Elementary Technology Teacher & Integration Coach Jennifer Kling, to discuss the program.

“It is a simple article, but it is not hard to imagine how proud and invested these boys are about the content,” says Kling. “They are truly inspired to be journalists, and they want to spread the good news about how First in Math can help all students.”

“We hope that everyone liked the article, and that everyone at First In Math knows how much Vernfield students appreciate the luxury of being able experience deep practice with their First in Math subscriptions,” says Edgar, who teaches third grade.

First In Math creator, Robert Sun, says he is thankful for energetic educators like Edgar and Kling—the latter a long-time, avid supporter of First In Math. “I admire her work building high levels of math achievement with her students over the years.”

Enjoy their story, below, reprinted with permission:

First In Math
By Brycen Clarke, Connor Klock, Tyler Lutz

Do you want to learn about First in Math? You will find out in this article!

We sat down with Mrs. Kling to ask her about First in Math. The inventor of First in Math is Robert Sun who also created the math game 24®. He believes math is patterns and it is important how a number connects with other numbers. The First in Math Online Program is used by more than 10 million students in the United States and other countries too!

During the beginning of October, our school, Vernfield Elementary, was in 38th place in the whole state of Pennsylvania. First place in the state was St. Laurence School. The average stickers per student in St. Laurence School was 4,472. Will Stover, a fifth-grade student in our school was ranked 45th in our state. Way to go Will!  The top player in the nation in early October earned 37,568 points [stickers] and is from San Diego, California.

Practice Makes Perfect
When It Comes to Mathematics – Part Two

Part One of this article discussed factors that contribute to an important issue facing educators: studies show that up to 90% of what students are taught in school may be forgotten in as little as 30 days.

Practice - Part Two

In his book, Why Don’t Students Like School, Daniel Willingham discusses how humans have evolved a way to get around limitations in working memory capacity. Through repeated practice, our brains turn procedures into loops that become automatic and are stored in our long-term memory. Only when skills become automatic can they can be called upon and executed without taxing our working memory.To comprehend how and why students have such a low rate of retention—and how we can prevent it—we must recognize that new learning builds upon a scaffolding of old mastery, and nowhere is this more critical than in mathematics.

“Each unique module on the First In Math site is specifically designed to provide automaticity in the basics—at each level. With their skills stored in long-term memory, students can build upon that mastery, and find new approaches to problem solving,” explains First In Math creator Robert Sun.

While educators agree that the best way to achieve mastery is through practice, many of them would also agree that they simply do not have time to supervise that practice. According to Suntex Executive Vice President Nan Ronis, they don’t have to. “First In Math’s robust assessment features make it easy to see whether a student’s foundation of skills is adequate for the current curriculum.”

According to Ronis, scalable assessment tools—such as the FIM Goals Index—make it easy to gauge solidification of the scaffolding children have established by a certain point in time. Teachers can then interact with their students, if needed, and offer a risk-free way to quickly fill in any missing skills through targeted practice activities on the First In Math site.

The site also provides students with individualized MY GOALS, TEAM GOALS and SCHOOL GOALS pages that encourage independent review and motivate students to ‘level-up’ within the program. “Self-assessment is very effective once children comprehend that they need to build upon each skill they learn, explains former teacher and current FIM Implementation Specialist Monica Patel.

“In this, educators and parents must play a larger role,” says Patel. It is our duty to constantly remind students that their job is to become problem-solvers, and not just be memorizers of facts for the short term. It is important that we show children how each little achievement today will help them succeed in an even bigger way tomorrow.”

Practice Makes Perfect
When It Comes to Mathematics – Part One

Every teacher—and every parent for that matter—has seen it. The student who explained a geometry concept in class yesterday is panicking during today’s review of the very same topic. The young woman who completed her homework easily last week is completely confused this week.

FIM News & Notes - Practice Part One

How do students forget new skills so soon after they are taught?

In a recent article that appeared in Education Week’s online edition, Nicole Smith brings focus to the problem. “Whether it is a student who is struggling with remembering new knowledge or applying old knowledge, the problem is the same. New learning is heavily dependent upon old mastery, and quite often students are unable to access prior knowledge in order to move forward in their learning.” 

“The best way to achieve mastery is through practice, but that is something students are often reluctant to do where math is concerned,” explains First In Math creator Robert Sun. “In basketball, when we shoot a free-throw and miss, the feedback through our physical senses is immediate, and we make mental and physical adjustments before our next try. When a child is solving mathematics problems alone at home or on a worksheet in class, there isn’t any built-in feedback, and not much active learning. Math can quickly become a meaningless, boring undertaking for many students.”

In contrast, First In Math’s digital gaming modules encourage students to practice the way they willingly do for sports and other activities. “As a gaming-based practice program with short cycles of play, First In Math provides the lively interaction and instant feedback students crave, along with the amount of Deep Practice necessary for skill retention, according to Sun. “Students learn by repeating, reassessing and fine-tuning skills, and are able to continually analyze and internalize new approaches to problem solving.”

“Young minds must be able to build pathways of memory, and the only way to really do this is through creative, interactive repetition,” says former teacher and current FIM Implementation Specialist Monica Patel, who explains that practice—at three times the amount of instruction time—is necessary for students to master new math skills.

“This is where a comprehensive math-practice tool like First In Math is essential—there is simply nothing like it.”

Look for Part Two, to be published next week.

More than 20 Billion Math Problems
Solved on First In Math Site!

EASTON, PA—In homes, libraries and at schools large and small, students across the globe have helped the First In Math online program achieve another amazing milestone—20 BILLION math problems solved!

FIM Landing Page - 20 Billion 

First In Math creator Robert Sun was thrilled to see the total reach 20 billion at approximately 9 PM east-coast time on November 9th—and proud to know that the digital-gaming tool he launched in 2002 is clearly popular with students and teachers now more than ever.

Nearly 47% of time spent practicing math on the First In Math site occurs voluntarily, during after-school hours, and Sun believes it is because FIM allows each child to discover his or her ideal entry point to active learning. “In preserving a child’s ability to choose and explore, First In Math is able to offer content that contains real rigor within a framework that is not intimidating. This distinguishes us from all other math programs.”

At every skill level, First In Math modules are designed to reinforce mastery of basic facts, decimals, fractions, integers, exponents, variables and order of operations. Many introduce principles of Algebra—even at the K, 1 and 2 levels. Early introduction leads to enthusiasm and, according to Sun, is what brought students across the 20 BILLION threshold. “ALL students can become their own generators of energy and have passion for learning—given the right environment.”

See More Articles in the News Archive

FIM 2017 Champion:

Daniel Wang, Jr.

2017 Honorable Mention

Daniel Wang, Jr. (PA)
Aran Jothi (VA)
Neel Anand (VA)
Ayan Swain (NJ)
Joshua Pajimola (CA)
Reyansh Bahl (NC)
Liberty Perez (NV)
Derek Garcia Rodrigez (MA)

Team Leaders
Jeffrey Keys (PA)
Samuel Allison (FL)
Adam Yaller (PA)
Annejeanette Washington (FL)
Abbi Stoloff (FL)
Adriana Figone (FL)
Lupita Vecchitto (CA)
Lisa Weingartner (FL)
Stephanie Sillo (PA)
Garth Jones (FL)

Chris Sakers, (MD)
William Hanna (NM)
Carol A. Lauck (PA)
Alison Allen (FL)
Linda Isherwood (PA)
Mary Higgins (PA)
James Scanlon (PA)
Sister Georgiana M. Connell, IHM (PA)
Phyllis Elder (GA)

Dugan-Tarango Middle School (NM)
Notre Dame de Lourdes (PA)
St Didacus School (CA)
Manatee Bay Elementary (FL)
Mountain View Elem School (NJ)
St Francis Desales School (PA)
Mountain View Elem School (NJ)
Central Intermediate School (LA)
Indian Trace Elem School (FL)
St Laurence School (PA)

Visit the First in Math®
Hall of Fame!

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