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September 1, 2015

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Joe Downtown: Math savant to teach new way of looking at numbers to downtown kids

Scott Flansburg is more than just the “Human Calculator,” as TV personality Regis Philbin dubbed him for his lightning quick knack to add numbers faster than fingers can punch them into a keyboard.

He’s an author, a media personality, a Guinness record holder and an avid golfer. And soon, he will become an educator, at least in downtown Las Vegas.

Flansburg’s zero-to-nine numeric system, which he conceived 14 years ago on the 18th hole of a golf round with rock star Alice Cooper, will become part of 9th Bridge School’s early education curriculum.

9th Bridge is a private school slated to open downtown this fall. It is being funded by the Downtown Project, whose investors include Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, the driving force behind much of downtown’s ongoing redevelopment.

Readily acknowledging that he is a savant – the 49-year-old Flansburg also is one of only a handful of people in the world who can instantly tell you the day of the week on which you were born if you give him the month, date and year – Flansburg adds that he simply has “a gift for numbers.”

“They make sense to my mind, and I’ve always had a passion for them,” he said.

His abilities have landed him on several nationally syndicated television shows and earned him a celebrity status that lets him rub elbows with stars. That's how he met Cooper, whose album “Billion Dollar Babies” reached the top of U.S. record charts in 1973.

The two have played about 3,000 rounds of golf together, Flansburg said, and were playing Sept. 9, 1999 (9/9/99), when Cooper mentioned his song “I’m Eighteen” and an idea hit Flansburg.

“We got to the 18th green, and I see 1 + 8 = 9," Flansburg said. "How come the numbers add up to nine? And then it just came to me.”

Flansburg's system works like this: Take any two-digit number, add the two digits together, subtract that total from the original number and you always get nine. Every time.

Take 46, for example: 4 + 6 = 10; 46 - 10 = 36; 3 + 6 = 9.

The same formula works for larger numbers, too: 136 - (1 + 3 + 6) = 126; 1 + 2 + 6 = 9.

From that, Flansburg drew up a number line that goes from zero to nine, 10 to 19, 20 to 29 and so on, instead of one to 10, 11 to 20 and so on.

When those lines are stacked on top of each other in a 10-by-10 matrix, as Flansburg does in his coloring book, which will be used at 9th Bridge, all kinds of nine-based patterns emerge.

On a page with the digits 0 to 99 listed on it, for example, students can shade every number that adds up to 14, and a diagonal pattern is revealed. There's a connection among the numbers 95, 86, 77 and 59.

The goal, Flansburg said, is to get children familiar and comfortable with numbers. His system is so easy to understand, he believes, that children will unconsciously become familiar and at ease with numbers, making it more likely they'll delve into more complicated math such as trigonometry and calculus when they get older.

“My mission is to reach every 9-year-old kid in Clark County and Nevada and see what kind of impact it has,” Flansburg said.

Having read about Las Vegas’ notoriously poor-performing schools, Flansburg said he feels like he’s “coming to ground zero."

"But I think I can make an impact," he said. "If I can empower every teacher to learn what you just learned over the phone and get every 9-year-old to have this basic number sense, we would see a dramatic statistical spike immediately.”

9th Bridge School will be the first to use his matrix.

“They’re not just going to sit there and memorize; they’re going to be great learners,” Flansburg said.

Flansburg will talk about 9th Bridge and his math/coloring book, “Turn on The Human Calculator in You,” at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the new Learning Village, 715 Fremont St., as part of the Downtown Speaker series.

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover downtown; he lives and works there. Schoenmann is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded downtown journalist, working from an office in the Emergency Arts building.

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