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Testing Math Skills with the Abacus Bee

A young boy moves the beads on a giant Cranmer abacus.

Created in China in 1200 C.E., the abacus is an ancient tool used by generations of mathematicians and students before the invention of the calculator. Despite its age, the abacus remains one of the most effective tools for teaching math basics accessibly to students who are blind or low vision. In 2022, we kicked off our first Abacus Bee competition for students in celebration of this foundational tool.

What is the Abacus Bee?

The Abacus Bee is the only national abacus contest in the United States for students ages 5 to 21 who are blind or low vision. The competition was created to encourage students to practice their math skills.

Accessible Math with the Abacus

According to Leanne Grillot, Senior Director of Outreach Services, the abacus is an essential tool because it is a calculator that gives users a hands-on way to add, subtract, multiply, and divide quickly and easily. “This tool allows students of any age, with any sight level, to understand mathematical fluency with numbers,” Leanne said. “It allows them the flexibility to understand how different groupings of numbers add up to a number. One of the big groupings is the groupings of 10. Two and eight make ten. Five and five make ten. Four and six make ten. So does six and four. That understanding of how these numbers are flexible and put together to equal ten is the beauty of the abacus.” Students who use an abacus often find that mental math also comes easily to them because they can picture moving the beads in their head to quickly find the answer to a problem.

2022 Abacus Bee

The 2022 Abacus Bee was sponsored by APH and presented by Science Sandbox, an initiative of the Simons Foundation with additional support provided by PNC Bank and Peter Papano. In fall 2022, students competed in the regional round in their state. All Abacus Bee competitions have five categories, which are based on skill level: starters, movers, riders, flyers, and blasters. The top three participants from each level with the highest overall scores qualified for the finals.

Three students wearing shirts with the Abacus Bee logo and party hats stand around a table. The student in the middle is reading a brailled piece of paper.

On December 10, 2022, students traveled from Florida and Washington State to the Kentucky School for the Blind to test their mathematical skills against their peers in the finals. Winners from each category were announced during an awards ceremony at the end of the daylong contest.

Thoughts on the Abacus Bee

We spoke to three students who attended the 2022 Abacus Bee finals: Louis, Emir, and Luke.

When asked how he liked the Abacus Bee, Louis, who wants to be an astrophysicist or a math professor, said, “I’m very happy with it. I think it’s really cool they get to put all of this together to really support people.”

Emir added, “I also like it. I feel like it’s a good way to get math into our brains.”

Luke, who wants to become an accountant, said, “It’s exciting but also kind of nerve-wracking because I wanted to put my best foot forward…It’s just been fun hanging out with the other kids.”

 

Get Your Bee On

Interested in participating in the next Abacus Bee? We plan to hold preliminary rounds in the fall of 2023, between August and December, with Finals taking place March 21-24, 2024! Reach out to our Outreach Team at outreach@aph.org to learn how your region can participate. 

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