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November 27, 1999


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All my sums

J M Shenoy in San Jose

Ashok Bansal, a marketing director for NEC Electronics in Santa Clara, is seriously thinking of quitting his daytime job.

No, he is not thinking of a start-up that could make him an overnight millionaire. Instead, Bansal, 45, wants to give full attention to, a 10-month-old web site he started to encourage improving math skills among children.

"Right now, I am handling two jobs," Bansal, father of two pre-teen children, says. The night-time job, he adds, laughing, does not pay him anything in terms of dollars, stocks and shares. "But I feel my real passion is in my night-time job," he adds.

If corporate sponsors back up his venture today, he is prepared to give up his daytime job for his new passion, he says.

Since he posted his free web site, he has created over 2,500 math teasers for elementary and middle school children. He reckons there have been over two million visitors, mostly from America, but an impressive number from foreign countries, including India and Japan. He laughs when a visitor suggests that he could create math teasers based on Panchatantra stories but if the response from South Asia increases, he might seriously consider doing it.

Bansal is also involved in a book drive for students in low income schools across the country. The $ 5 donation he solicits from parents, children and teachers who visit his web site will not only help him improve the web site but also help procure and send out books to schools across the country.

"There are thousands of books in the valley," he says. "Some are sitting idle. Some are discarded so fast after they are used. We could use them elsewhere."

The web site -- dubbed 'Math for Internet Generation' -- owes a considerable amount of its success to word-of-mouth. But now the media is getting to know of it too.

"Suddenly in the last few weeks there have been many stories in major newspapers and on radio stations," he says. "Now, I hear complaints that people have to wait to get in." started when Bansal thought his children, Veena, 6, and Anjali, 10, weren't getting enough of analytical math.

"There is persistent feeling across America that the math children learn in school is not enough to solve the analytical problems in the outside world," he says.

More than ever, employers today are looking for problem-solving and analytical skills, Bansal says. Though standardized tests reflect the trend, many schools and textbooks have not caught up.

"Like most kids, my children were doing a lot of mechanical computation in school, but not the kind of problems that test their critical thinking, and I know how important those skills are in the real world," he says.

"We are in an industry that requires a lot of computer literacy, and for that, you need to know how to solve problems,'' he continues. "Math is going to play a key role in that.''

The site is devoted to the idea that math should be more engaging and stimulating than memorizing times tables or computing square roots.

"I am trying to bring more practicality to math,'' he says. "I am making it more exciting and fun.''

Bansal has a master's degree in physics from Delhi University, an MS in physics and an MS in electrical engineering from Northwestern University in Evanston. He has also taught in several community colleges.

"The passion for teaching and public service is very much there even after I have spent many years in the industry," he says.

So he started writing his own word problems, combining them with stories from children's books and other kid-friendly topics.

There are word problems based, for instance, on 'The Three Little Pigs', 'Five Little Monkeys', or math problems about whales, skyscrapers, money, lakes -- anything that have a numerical value attached to it

A fifth- and sixth-grade problem asks students to balance a checkbook. Another asks children to calculate electricity usage and the cost of running a television for four hours.

Initially, he had no idea of creating a web site.

"But when I saw the enthusiasm with which my kids and their friends got involved in solving the problems, I thought of starting a web site," he says.

Since one of his daughters is in the fifth grade and the other in the first grade, he felt that he should create teasers for children of different ages.

About a year ago Bansal, bought software and found an Internet service provider and started crafting his homemade word problems.

On second thought, they are not entirely homemade problems; he thinks about them all through the day, he says. As the first few months passed by, and he realized that was being used in many schools, he began making the brain teasers even more interesting by integrating literature, geography, history and science with math.

Testimonials from teachers find his site refreshingly different from other learning sites because it is categorized for use by different ages, with problems featuring nursery rhymes to stories appropriate for middle school students. And Bansal frequently updates the material.

"There are fewer of these kinds of questions in textbooks because they take up more page space than basic equations," said Nedra Shunk, co-ordinator of the pre-teaching programs at Santa Clara University, in an interview with a San Francisco newspaper.

"Most web sites are aimed at teachers and parents. I have not seen one especially for kids to practice problems at any level they want."

Charmi O'Conner, who lives in the tiny town, says that, in a few months, her 11-year-old son Greg went from testing at his fifth-grade level to an eighth-grade score after practising the site's word exercises. "The great thing is that we can download the problems so he does not have to be working on the computer the whole time," she adds.

Testimonials come from near and far.

"I just want to let you know how much I love this site," wrote Nicole Seneviratne, a teacher at Saint Peter School in Calgary, Canada.

"I have spent many hours making up word problems and I am so happy that there is a place I can go so I don't have to do it myself. My students only have access to the computer lab for 45 minutes per week so they can't do them in the lab. However, I print off a copy and make an overhead and we do the questions in class. I have been letting kids come into the lab after school and I am able to work one-on-one with these problems."

He has diversified the site's use by sponsoring book drives. Recently, he brokered a book donation from Berkeley's Berkwood Hedge School to Francisco Middle School in The City.

"I get e-mails all the time from teachers who say they cannot afford books for their classrooms," he says.

One of the persons who got involved in his project right at the beginning and helped him create brain teasers is a teacher who works in Lancaster, South Carolina.

"One day she told that her school needed books for its students," he says.

"First I looked around the valley, talked to some of the people and school authorities I have known and began a drive. Now, I depend on my web site."

Bansal organized his first book drive at his daughter's school and shipped the South Carolina school 200 books. He has also helped donate books to two South Bay schools: the Sherman Oaks Elementary in San Jose and East Palo Alto Charter School. Schools in New York and Texas have also received books from him.

The drive is confined to supplemental reading books.

Schools, corporations, libraries, and parents and children interested in donating books can write to

Those who are looking for donations, do write to

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