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UMass alumna, A2Z team offer hands-on toy to make geometry a ‘snap’

  • Yana Mohanty, Ph.D., creator of Geometiles, in San Diego with the product. PHOTOS COURTESY OF GEOMETILES

  • Geometiles can be found at A2Z PHOTOS COURTESY OF GEOMETILES

  • André Boulay, owner of A2Z in Northampton, playing with Geometiles in his story Friday. DAVE McLELLAN



For the Gazette
Sunday, October 15, 2017

In the age of the internet, there is a growing hunger for hands-on learning, and, where the education realm and the toy industry collide, a resistance is mounting. Toys made for learning mathematics kinesthetically are leading the charge.

That’s according to Yana Mohanty, a longtime math instructor and University of Massachusetts Amherst alumna whose award-winning Geometiles are being sold at Northampton’s A2Z Science & Learning Store, the first retailer to carry the geometric toy.

“The trend is in the opposite direction because of all the digital stuff and so much money in that, but Geometiles, it’s unplugged,” said Mohanty, who holds a doctorate in mathematics. “It’s feeding a minority movement where people are just hungry for something they can touch.”

Geometiles come in the form of yellow, orange, purple and green plastic tiles that snap together, forming 2-D and 3-D shapes and solids. Geometiles’ seven different shapes — triangles, rectangles, squares and pentagons — allow children to learn geometry and math while playing.

“Every click just feels good,” Mohanty said.

After a successful run of selling Geometiles to school districts across the country, Mohanty contacted A2Z on King Street to see if they would be the first to carry the product. Mohanty remembers the store from her time at UMass in the late ’90s.

“A2Z has always been in the back of my head as a science-y store and more than just a toy store,” Mohanty said. “Ten years ago, I came back with my daughter and visited A2Z before the Geometiles idea. I bought her a Hoberman Switch Pitch there.”

Mohanty corresponded with the owner, André Boulay, who is a UMass alumnus himself, and eventually sent him a sample. Boulay worked at A2Z for several years, and for the last two and a half years has owned it with his wife — he knows from experience what toys are a fit for the store.

“We try and keep things that make you use your head. Children learn through play,” Boulay said. “Ask anyone what their favorite toy is — sometimes it’s really simple — but it can have a huge impact. Careers are born out of them.”

Boulay, who thoroughly vets each A2Z toy before carrying them, was attracted to several things about Geometiles: they are made in the U.S., they hadn’t been sold at any other location and they, most importantly, are incredibly valuable for their price, allowing children endless education, creativity and fun.

“They do well as you put them in people’s hands,” Boulay said. “It’s one of those things you have to pick up and play with.”

It also feels good, Boulay said, to work with someone who has a local connection.

A love of math

Mohanty discovered her love of math after her two electrical engineering degrees — a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, and her master’s degree from UMass — and went on to earn her doctorate in mathematics from the University of California, San Diego.

To her, Geometiles are a synthesis of her engineering and math backgrounds, as well as her interest in a hands-on approach to education. She invented Geometiles with hopes that children would successfully apply mathematical concepts with a tangible object, rather than on paper, and have fun doing it.

The playing part of it, Mohanty said, is especially important. Mohanty recognizes that a lot of people have negative feelings about math and learning subjects like geometry. The very word, “math,” she said can trigger unpleasant emotions. Geometiles, however, add creativity, imagination, and hand-eye coordination to learning math.

“When they use Geometiles, people aren’t thinking about math. They’re just thinking, ‘I want to make, say, a hat.’ So they’re making this hat, but they’re solving the math problem of how to make a hemisphere with a limited amount of triangles,” Mohanty said.

Learning while playing

The toys are used by teachers and parents to teach lessons on fractions, angles, Platonic and Archimedean solids, and purchasing a 96-piece set includes a lifetime membership to the Geometiles resource library, a collection of workbooks, lesson plans and instructions that are downloadable.

The pieces come in three different sized sets: 32-piece, 96-piece and 512-piece. On the Geometiles website, the 32-piece is $30, the 96-piece is $85 and the 512-piece “Jumbo Set” is $385. A2Z is selling the 32-piece set, while the “Jumbo Set,” Mohanty said, is only really being marketed to schools.

Geometiles help the lessons come alive, Mohanty said.

“It’s one thing when kids learn it in a textbook, but to see it and touch it in real life, and to approach problems in a new medium other than paper, it may be challenging, but it encourages them to use their book knowledge in real life,” Mohanty said.

Mohanty has seen extraordinary creations with her Geometiles from children and adults alike. A2Z made a yo-yo using the tiles and a spare hex wrench. At the Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival in San Diego, Mohanty saw a child who made a bowling set, complete with ball and pins, entirely from Geometiles.

Mohanty always knew that “kids would be making all kinds of crazy things with them.” The fact that people get creative with the Geometiles, makes them more apt to continue using them, and continue learning.

“When someone feels positive about an experience — in a good mood — they learn so much better. From my experience, people won’t retain what they’ve learned if it’s a negative experience,” Mohanty said. “It’s embarrassing how little history I know because the teacher was grumpy.”

For her creation of Geometiles, Mohanty has won numerous awards, including the “Brain Child” award from the Tillywig Toy Awards, the “2017 Product of the Year Award” and “2017 Creative Play of the Year Award” from Creative Child Magazine and the “Brain Toy” award from Academics’ Choice.

Mohanty has had several positions as a math instructor and “volunteer math coach at [her] daughter’s school,” since earning her doctorate in 2002. She taught math for five years at the University of California, San Diego and for a year at Palomar College, and cofounded the San Diego Math Teachers’ Circle.

The idea behind the toy

When she was learning math growing up, there wasn’t very much in respect to hands-on learning — no toys — but her experiences teaching both children and adults, some of whom are math teachers, led to “several a-ha moments over several years,” culminating in her creation of the toy Geometiles.

“My first idea was several tiles — I was teaching a topic on geometrical figures — and the tiles were 2-D. I used a cutting machine at home to make a prototype — about credit card thin. Then the girls, who were going into eighth grade, really wanted them to be a box but the dimensions didn’t work,” Mohanty said.

Deciding that she wanted to make her tile idea 3-D, Mohanty hired a San Diego engineer to design the new prototype, which she then made using a 3-D printer. After honing that prototype, Mohanty approached a manufacturer about producing the Geometiles; the adult engineers, she said, had a blast with the snap-together tiles, and Mohanty officially launched Geometiles in early 2016.

Through eNasco, a catalogue that carries various educational tools and toys, Geometiles were initially sold to teachers and schools across the country. Then, a friend’s 10-year-old was over at Mohanty’s house one day and said, “you should sell these at toy stores.”

Mohanty is in talks with Kidstructive Fun, a family-owned toy store in Burlington, Vermont, and Plattsburgh, New York, to expand Geometiles’ foray into the retail world. For now she has A2Z, which she described as the “perfect store” for Geometiles.

Boulay agrees, and said the toys encourage spacial skills and pattern recognition for children, in addition to learning math.

Mohanty also has several other ideas regarding educational tools that she is toying with, but for now, she is sticking to volunteer arrangements, working with kids and selling Geometiles.