The Yucatan: Math, Ruins and Fun

By Thomas W. ’19
Photos by Mrs. Bonner

Going into the 2017 Maya Math Trip, our group of 15 students and 2 teachers knew each other at least somewhat, but those acquaintances immediately started to become close friends from our very first bus ride to the airport. Despite the early hour and cold weather, we spent the drive talking and playing games and soon we were on our way to the warm beaches and ancient ruins of the Yucatan Peninsula. As soon as we stepped out of the plane in Cancun, the blast of heat from the Mexican afternoon replaced all thoughts of snow with dreams of the ocean.

We spent our first two days in Playa del Carmen, a city about an hour south of Cancun. Our hotel was close to the ocean, so our first night we headed down to the beach in our flip-flops to splash and chat. It almost didn’t seem real; it was dark, but there was just enough light to see everyone. There was the sound of the waves, with the warm water washing over everyone’s feet, and of live music playing behind us. It was a magical start to our adventure.

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The next day we returned to the beach but also began to learn about the Maya with lectures on their number system, calendar and religious practices from our extremely knowledgeable guide, Dr. Heather Teague. 

That evening, we walked through the city to a restaurant where we ate authentic Mexican quesadillas and tacos. Chipotle burritos might be good, but nothing beats the small but delicious and filling tacos from Mexico. Food became a memorable part of the trip, as it seemed we could try a new delectable dish at every meal. By the end of that first day, we were so physically tired from the beach and mentally loaded from our lectures that it felt like we had already been there for a while. 

The next three days we spent touring three different ancient Maya sites. We went to Cobá, Chichén Itzá, and Uxmal. One might think that they would be very similar, but the architecture and experiences at all three were unique. 

On our first day of ruins exploration, we rode bikes through Cobá, with stops for pictures and learning about the ruins. This was the setting for one of my favorite memories. We were walking a little ways on a busy tree-lined trail when we saw what seemed like a mountain of stone on our left. When we stepped into a mildly crowded opening, we saw that the mountain was actually an absolutely massive temple. We later learned that it is the largest in the entire Yucatan. Naturally our next question was, “Are we going to climb it?” and to our delight, we did. 

The satisfaction of finally reaching the top after over 100 steep, narrow steps was further amplified by the amazing view from the top. You could see over the sea of trees for miles and miles. Over the next two days we had similarly awe-inspiring tours of the ruins at Chichén Itzá and Uxmal. We learned about the intricate math and astronomy the Maya used in the construction of temple Kukulkan in Chichén Itzá and admired the stone likenesses of the rain god, Chacmool, in Uxmal. These sites provided us with amazing views, knowledge, and friendship, as we experienced these breathtaking ancient ruins together.

Sprinkled into the itinerary were trips to three cenotes, which are holes in the limestone bedrock filled with water from underground aquifers. Just like the ruins, each was unique, but all were tons of fun. Whether it was jumping into 150-foot deep water, playing a spontaneous game of “King of the Hill” over a kayak, or watching little fish nibble at our feet, the cenotes were for many of us one of our favorite experiences. They were also a much welcome break from the Mexican heat.

During the last few days of the trip, we did more than our share of shopping and wandering, experiencing the authentic feel of Mexico. We returned to Playa del Carmen, but not before stopping in Valladolid, an old Spanish colonial town, to shop with our now close friends around a beautiful cathedral and bright green plaza. 

Once back in Playa del Carmen, we swam, wandered, ate, and shopped some more. As we headed back to Pennsylvania, everyone was utterly exhausted by our busy schedule and plentiful walking, but we could look back and know that our excitement was well deserved, and that we all had an unforgettable experience that bound us closer together and taught us amazing things about the Maya and one another.

LCDS Global Programs include a robust, curricular, experiential learning travel program and a diverse international student community. For more information on our travel opportunities or learning about the rewards of hosting an international student, please contact  Heather Woodbridge, Director of Global Programs

The Building Blocks of Transcendental Beauty

From the day Archimedes began teaching the math he invented, all Middle School-age students in the Western World have, at one time or another, asked when they would ever need to know this stuff in the real world. While scholars know that Archimedes effectively discovered pi, it remains unclear whether he ever devised a satisfactory answer to that question.

So far as Cougar News knows, Elise Green has not yet uncovered a new transcendental number nor devised a way to burn enemy boats using only mirrors and the sun, but she has come up with a decidedly elegant answer to that timeless question.


“You can use math to create beauty,” said the Middle School math teacher, whose students recently finished a project in which they did exactly that. While cultivating a solid understanding of the fundamentals of geometry, Green’s students put that knowledge to work making stained glass windows whose form blends light and color “to lift the human spirit,” she said.

Before lifting any spirits however, the kids drew a rough draft incorporating 20 geometric figures from the glossary they compiled, defining in their own words terms such as scalene triangle and similar figures. Once Green approved the design, the students used the drawings as pseudo-stencils, placing them under panes of glass as a guide for the gooey black epoxy that would keep each painted section separate.

“It’s not hard to memorize terms,” Green said, “but it’s not fun either. When the kids make their windows, they’re not just passively taking in math; they’re actively and creatively applying it.

“Plus, they make great Mother’s Day presents.”

Appreciating in Their Own Little Ways

“You witness their faces when they see their buddies in the hallway and give them a high-five or just say hi. Their faces light up. They think it’s the coolest thing in the world.”

Middle School math teacher and seventh-grade class advisor Elise Green was describing the unique bond that forms between her students and their Lower School Buddies. A rotating group of 12 older kids heads down to the junior kindergarten classroom once a week to play games or do crafts. Click here to see it.

This informal mentorship program is more than five years old, and, in Green’s estimation, an unqualified success. Middle School Head Rudy Sharpe, Ph.D., explained, “Service learning and character education are significant parts of a Middle School education. The more opportunities we can provide for students to practice empathy and kindness, the more likely it is that they will carry these qualities into their later teen years. This program benefits not only the younger children but also our seventh-graders as they develop poise, self-confidence, and important relational skills.”

Green said, “It’s good for the seventh graders to give back. It helps them grow as a person and really builds character, patience and listening. It helps them become role models.”

As Lower School teacher Kevia Walton explained, “The JK students are still learning the basic math concepts presented through these games and still need an older student or a teacher to have them stop and count again or look at the math symbol one more time and think about what it represents. Their older schoolmates will be able to give them that little reminder that keeps the game meaningful to their mathematical concept development.”

One happy side effect of older buddies teaching the little ones math in a way they love is that the kids also get a solid handle on the days of the week. “They know when it’s Thursday,” Green said. “They start asking their teachers, ‘Is it buddy day today?’”

“The seventh graders realize what kind of impact they have when they see how much the kids look forward to seeing them,” Green continued.

“It’s good for the students to feel valued and feel appreciated by the little ones in their own little ways and it’s good for the older kids to help their in-house community,” Green said.

“Everybody definitely benefits.”