Class of ’95 | When Laura Bilodeau Overdeck WG’95 was a girl, working with numbers was a normal part of life. Math—whether it involved measuring ingredients for cooking or wood for her father’s carpentry projects—was a fun activity, not a cause for anxiety. When she became a parent (Overdeck has three children, ages four, seven, and nine), she did the same activities with her kids. But as she and her husband John were reading to their daughter at night, they also discovered that asking her a math question led to a request for more math questions. And soon their other kids were requesting math problems before they went to sleep.
“We mentioned this to other people, and nobody was doing math with their children,” recalls Overdeck, who lives in Short Hills, New Jersey. “There is such a double standard with reading and literacy versus math. People are always reading, but never doing math—and then corporate leaders and politicians wonder why our country is weak in math.”
The idea that math can be as much fun for kids as a bedtime story—or even be a fun bedtime story—might strike the math-phobic as unlikely. But for Overdeck, that idea, plus numerous requests from other families to share her math problems, led to Bedtime Math, a nonprofit devoted to developing math literacy from an early age. (Bedtime Math’s “sibling organization,” the Overdeck Family Foundation, supports programs that “foster great K-12 STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] education.”)
Each day, at no cost, thousands of parents visit the website (bedtimemath.org) or Facebook page, and some 20,000 receive an email with a fun math story that they can read to their children at bedtime.
Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Many parents say it never occurred to them to do math along with a bedtime story and note that they are enjoying math for the first time. Their children—just like Overdeck’s—eagerly await the next math problem. To expand the movement, Overdeck is writing three books. The first is due out this June.
While most people equate success in other subjects with hard work, Overdeck observes, they consider math an on/off skill—you either have it or you don’t. The very name Bedtime Math is meant to suggest a daily activity.
She writes different math problems for different age groups: Wee Ones (pre-school), Little Kids (K-2), and Big Kids (grades 2 and up). Her children are a constant source of material.
“If they think something is really funny,” says Overdeck, “I figure other kids will, too.”
Which brings up the crucial role of recreation in Bedtime Math.
“I don’t want the stories to sound like school, or be subjected to the same rules as a school curriculum,” Overdeck declares. “Most kids don’t think of math as a fun activity the same way they think of reading for pleasure, so we want them to think of math as something you do outside school.”
Summer months are part of that mission. More than 50 New Jersey libraries have participated in the “Summer of Numbers” program by distributing three-month calendars with stickers, so children can mark the days when they’ve done Bedtime Math problems. Last summer, Bedtime Math also partnered with several New Jersey chapters of Boys & Girls Clubs in a pilot program, “Snacktime Math,” to give the children one Bedtime Math problem each day, supplementing whatever math is in the curriculum.
“For children from academically deficient households with limited access to technology, these partners allow us to bring numeracy to young kids of all income levels,” Overdeck says. In the Jersey City chapter, for example, children in kindergarten through grade 3 took math quizzes at the beginning and end of the summer; 72 percent of them performed better on the second quiz, even though studies have shown that children usually lose two to three months of math skills over the summer.
It was during Overdeck’s studies at Princeton, where she earned a BA in astrophysics, that she became fascinated with the processes used to teach math and science. After graduating, this passion for numbers fueled a brief career on Wall Street. She then decided to pursue an MBA at Wharton, focusing on operations management and public policy. Now she wishes she could have studied there longer.
“I loved my time at Penn,” she says. “I entered as an introvert and left as an extreme extrovert.
“Working collaboratively was a great growth experience,” she adds, referring to the teamwork with other classmates. “The biggest challenge was learning how to delegate—how to let go and let someone else do the work.”
Now she’s helping parents delegate their children’s bedtime activities to her—and everyone comes out ahead.