When eight-year-old Andrew wanted to learn long division, his father took matters into his own hands. Tim Sylvester, a Bay Area software engineer, decided to launch a math circle in his hometown of Santa Cruz, he told MindShift.
Math circles aren’t just math clubs for kids. They’re run by adults with a solid background in the discipline, such as mathematicians, engineers, biologists, graduate students, and high school teachers. The sessions cover much more than arithmetic. In fact, the topics covered in a math circle are not normally included in the standard classroom curriculum. Session leaders immerse students in the beauty of math through interactive puzzles, hands-on activities, and games like checkers. Students often work together to solve the problems collaboratively – a strategy that research shows makes all the difference when it comes to learning math.
“[T]here are many different styles. There’s not just one particular way to do this,” Natasha Rozhkovskaya, associate professor of mathematics at Kansas State University, told Scientific American. Rozhkovskaya recently wrote the book on math circles for elementary school children, “Math Circles for Elementary School Students.” Other activities can include working out problems, solving riddles and puzzles, preparing for math competitions, and going on field trips to places like art museums. Students share their own approaches to solving the challenges, demonstrating that there isn’t always one right way to come at a problem.
“[M]ost math circle leaders ask kids to build arguments, not just learn formulas and plug in numbers and get a different result,” Rozhkovskaya explains. “When you solve a problem you have to give a proof…because then you can better understand how and when to use it.”
Problem-based math circles challenge kids to think for themselves, and are being touted as a way to level the playing field for girls and minorities. Rozhkovskaya’s group, for example, invites guests to discuss how knowing math empowers you to “do incredible things in your life.” Students from the poverty-stricken Navajo Nation agree. Many of the kids who didn’t consider themselves “smart” before joining the local Math Circle have a newfound confidence in their intelligence, thanks to a problem-based approach that challenges them to find their own answers.
While math circles have been making the rounds in Eastern Europe for over a century, they only reached U.S. shores about 20 years ago, Scientific American reports. They’ve expanded quickly; there are currently about 200 chapters nationwide. The gatherings bring like-minded kids who love math together outside of school, where the peer environment may be less than encouraging. The groups usually target middle and high-school students.
Whether a child eventually enters a STEM field or not, math will be critical to everyday life. And it’s not just about the numbers – kids also develop essential logic and reasoning skills. “One of the reasons you learn math is for the thought process and the problem-solving process,” Sylvester told MindShift. “That’s why you do it.”
Want to join a local Math Circle? Visit the website of the National Association of Math Circles (NAMC) to seek out a group near you.
How to Start Your Own Math Circle
While starting a new math circle can be hard work, the rewards are worth the effort. When Sylvester began the Santa Cruz Math Circle with professor Paul Zeitz last year, he was expecting about five kids; 50 showed up for the initial free session. The group now has about 25 regular participants.
“The main thing is to find the right person,” Rozhkovskaya says. That means a qualified, dynamic speaker who can adapt their classroom management strategies for younger kids – a combination of characteristics that can be a tall order. In many cases, the speakers are faculty members at local universities. Organizers can recruit these academics by describing how their participation will benefit their department – by demonstrating its value to the local community, for instance. When reaching out to new instructors, NAMC recommends inviting them to visit the circle a week or two in advance so they can get a feel for how the sessions are delivered.
Don’t be discouraged if there isn’t a college nearby; other community members may well step up to the plate. Teachers at some schools like the Bay area’s Nueva School have already created their own programs. Parents, teachers, and community members interested in starting their own groups can find very detailed resources on the NAMC website, including lesson plans from the book Circle in a Box. The lessons should not only feature math in the abstract, but also in real-world examples from art, design, computer graphics, and related areas.
A great example of fun, problem-based math that takes kids out of the classroom and into the real world is the IMP-Meaningful Math curriculum unit called “All About Alice”, which provides a new framework for students to learn about exponents. In the exercise, students take the fabled character from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” and apply math concepts to her fantastical journey. Download a sample of All About Alice HERE.
Finding the right program structure may involve some experimentation. For example, when the range of abilities of their 4th to 8th graders proved too broad, Santa Cruz Math Circle organizers created two tiers and brought in a second leader. You can learn about the variety of existing approaches and program structures through the National Association of Math Circles.
Scheduling those programs can be tricky. Experts recommend carving out one and a half to two hours, which will allow enough time for hands-on activities. While it’s impossible to please everyone, NAMC has helpful tips on crafting calendars that accommodate the greatest number of people.
Ferreting out enough instructors to fill out your calendar may also be challenging. In addition to drafting local faculty members, NAMC suggests reviewing the schedules of math department colloquia and reaching out to visiting speakers.
Meeting space is another key element. If you’re working with academics, chances are that they’ll want to host the circle on campus. The excitement of a college environment can be a great draw for kids. But if campus parking is a challenge or you don’t have a university partner, you can generally book space at libraries and community centers.
And of course, there’s the issue of financing your math circle. You can minimize costs by booking space at the local public library for free, and seeking out volunteers. Keep in mind, however, that paying session leaders can attract higher-quality candidates. You can seek out grants to help with this. NAMC posts some math circle grant opportunities on its wiki. Charging tuition and crowdsourcing donations from parents through Kickstarter or a local website are other options.
Math circles are a team effort. Reach out to interested parents to request help with coordinating promotion and activities. Ask local math teachers to announce events through schools channels to make sure the message reaches students from all neighborhoods, and that underrepresented kids don’t slip through the cracks.
The students themselves may be able to help you get the word out by creating a website for the group. The Mid Cities Math Circle website can help you brainstorm content ideas. Wikispaces are another option that make it easy for participants to find information, post questions and resources, and sign up for sessions. Check out the Cincy Math Circle and the San Francisco Math Circle (@SFMathCircle) for inspiration and reach out to other math circle organizers.
Embracing technology is key. Share important news and info regularly with parents and teachers via email. Create a safe, private place for your math circle to engage online (like creating a private Facebook group). Don’t forget Twitter! Follow the #mathcircle hashtag for ideas and feedback from fellow math circle organizers. From creating a Twitter lists of your math circle members, to scheduling occasional tweetchats, to reaching out to your PLN for suggestions and feedback, social media is a powerful resource for helping you to create, manage and grow your math circle — and students love it.
Get More Math Circle Tips and Tricks
Fortunately, there’s no shortage of resources to help you get started with a new math circle. NAMC’s very detailed handbook on planning and molding a math circle covers everything from age-appropriate topics to setting a schedule to approaching math professors. It even provides ready-made math circle sessions that can be adapted for different audiences. You can also visit Delia Bush’s blog for an awesome step-by-step breakdown of how one teacher created her own circle.
For additional reading on math circles, check out these book titles:
- Mathematical Circles: Russian Experience
- A Decade of the Berkeley Math Circle: The American Experience
- Math Circles for Elementary School Students
Regardless of the details, the informal setting, expanded timeframe, and after-school scheduling open up a world of new possibilities. Math circles offer more flexibility and time for hands-on activities. By rotating leaders, they expose students to fresh perspectives and techniques. Starting a new math circle may just cultivate an appreciation for the beauty of mathematics in your own students.
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