You’re Supposed to Say No

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Yesterday I had lunch with my good friend Sam Dyson, director of the Hive, which promotes teen learning through the internet. Like a good therapist, Sam tends to push, and yesterday he wanted to know what Math Circles of Chicago really trying to achieve. What does success look like? What’s the ‘why’?

Like many Americans, movie quotes are cultural touchstones, and what came to mind was this exchange from “Stand and Deliver,” the film about the great math teacher Jaime Escalante and his quest to bring AP Calculus to an underserved school in Los Angeles:

  • Escalante: Do you want me to do it for you?
  • Student: Yes.
  • Escalante: You’re supposed to say no!

In my own classroom, when I saw them struggling, the first question I always asked them was, “Do you want my help?”  When a student got to the point where they said, “No,” I felt they had succeeded.

To get to this point, kids need a lot of things–experience with challenging and unusual problems, a collection of heuristics (rules of thumb) that transfer from problem to problem, and membership in a community of like minded people.

So what is success for a program like Math Circles? The same, I think, as for any educational program. When students develop their own agency, they have succeeded. Just say no.

Math Camp for Adults

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Around this time of year I start pointing out summer math camps that are taking place in Chicago and around the country. Check out these suggestions from last year:

Recently, I just came across Math Camp for Adults. What really caught my attention was that this summer’s sessions are being led by Will Dunham, the author of “Journey Through Genius,” one of my all time favorite popular press math books. Why should the kids have all the fun?

The Annoying Rose

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Recently I wrote a post about a problem that took me three days to do, and how exploring a beautiful problem with friends is a way that ‘math people’  build community.

These questions have an evil twin–the annoying problem.

The annoying problem often is posed by someone whose presentation is…smug. They know the answer and you don’t. The problem makes you curious, but when you learn the answer, it feels cheap. Groans follow. Riddles can have this quality.

My friend Josh Thurbee uses these problems as a tool to teach perseverance. Josh is too charming to be smug, but I have grinded my teeth at him once or twice nevertheless.

I leave it to you to take the plunge or not. Follow this link to Josh’s favorite puzzle: How many petals are around the rose?

Expanding Your Horizons: March 24th

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Heads up to girls in grades 6-8: the annual Expanding Your Horizons symposium is on March 24th at the University of Chicago!

Experience hands-on workshops, meet female role models in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), and learn about STEM careers. EYH will also be holding special sessions for parents to help them help their daughters develop and sustain an interest in STEM fields.

There is a $5 advance registration fee, and in addition to being students in grades 6, 7, or 8, participating girls must be in a public school in Chicago or in districts 143, 144, 147, 148, or 149. The symposium itself is on 3/24. Check-in is between 8:00 and 9:00 AM and the program runs until 3:00PM.

Register here soon–EYH fills up fast!

A Web of Math

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For some parents and some kids, their response to the math circle experience is–‘More?’

In the world of the web, there is plenty of more. In fact, so much that it’s hard to discern what’s truly worthwhile. What are the best sources of online math enrichment?

  1. The Art of Problem Solving    AoPS addresses three things: How can I take challenging math classes on my own? Where can I find books to learn that math? How can I meet other people like me that are crazy about math? 
  2.’s VP of Community is  Calvin Liu, who I’m told taught some Euler sessions in MC2 once upon a time. A beautiful site, with sections on the Joy of Problem Solving, Logic, Algebra Through Puzzles, etc. Addictive. Too addictive.
  3. Scientific American’s Roots of Unity is all about mathematical connections. Evelyn Lamb’s writing is beautiful, and the topics are wide ranging, from biography to fractals, with recurring posts on Favorite Theorems and Favorite Spaces–this is a good place to start, as Favorite Spaces are some of the most accessible posts.
  4. Cut the Knot is all about interactive math puzzles. A classic site, with all that word implies (you’ll have to configure your browser to get the java applets to work).

This is, inevitably, the tip of the iceberg. Parents, a quick final list of other resources that might fit your needs: Math games, brain teasers, and more at NCTM Illuminations; the Math Counts Problem of the Week Archive; The Natural Math site, with resources for kids as young as three; and, finally, the Math Forum, particularly the archive for Ask Dr. Math, where 1000’s of questions have been asked and answered!

Frontiers for Young Minds

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It’s hard to believe, but every once and a while someone actually finishes a PhD.

Edgar Bering was so excited about math circles that he started his own in Bridgeport. He taught in Math Circles of Chicago for a long time, but then the fatal day came last year, he finished his PhD, and got an Assistant Professorship….in Philadelphia. We miss him dearly.

Edgar is still just excited about turing kids onto math, and in his latest email to me he told me about, “Frontiers for Young Minds.” This site bills itself as, “Science edited for kids, by kids.” And they’ve just added a new subject–mathematics!

The site’s content is geared towards 8-15 year olds, and was recognized in 2014 as one of the American Library Association’s Great Websites for Kids.

There is one math article posted so far, with more soon to come. Scientists write the pieces, but kids act as editors to make sure the content is engaging and understandable. Check it out!

Building Community: The Alligator and the Moat

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“Did you hear the one about the alligator and the moat?” For most people, this sounds like the start of a joke. (Not necessarily a good joke, admittedly).

But when you have math friends, there’s a chance that it’s the start of a good problem. Problems like the Alligator and the Moat have circulated for years and years–in today’s parlance, they’re mathematical memes.

They are also community builders. You hear about a weird problem, you tell your friends, you try something, you share ideas. Usually these problems are tricky, and seemingly hard (although once you get them you stop thinking that). You share your failure to solve the problem, you ‘throw things at the wall.’ Often you solve the problem in a way that was different from the method used by the person who asked, which is great because then you own the problem too. Over time you develop a ‘club’ of people with whom you share these problems.

Bill Schmit, a former student of mine, gave me an all time favorite: You are blindfolded (not an unusual start to this kind of problem). You have two groups of 5 dice. One group of dice sums to 15, and the other to 13. Make two groups of dice with the same sum. Reminder–you’re blindfolded.

I mulled this over for a couple of days. I expressed annoyance with Bill for posing it (if you know Bill, also not unusual). And then I mentioned it to another former student, Justin Huang, who said, “I don’t know how to do it, but I know another similar problem that I also don’t know how to do.” And then I solved Justin’s problem right away, and then together we immediately solved Bill’s problem. That’s how problem solving goes some times.

As for the Alligator and the Moat, my colleague and mathematician Lynn Narasimhan started with her usual preface, “Here’s another one from my nephew.” “You are on an island that has radius r that is surrounded by a narrow moat, so that you can cross it almost instantly. Unfortunately, there is an alligator in the moat, and it moves 4 times as fast as you, and you cannot jump directly over it without loss of limb. In general, can you get off the island safely?”

Welcome to the club–good luck!

Giving the Gift of Math

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My favorite toy when I was a child was the Soma Cube. Ostensibly the puzzle is to take the seven pieces and form a cube, but my Soma came with a booklet that displayed dozens of other 3d shapes to make, and I spent many hours trying to solve them all.

Puzzles like the Soma (or books like these or games like these) had a greater influence on me then any school math class. With the holiday gift giving approaching, I surveyed some of my MC2 friends to see what other toys or games they remembered from their childhoods.

Julienne Au was full of suggestions. Like me, she loves spirographs. This wikipedia entry gives the mathematical underpinnings of spirographs; I’m reminded of the pre-Copernican model of the motion of the planets, as described in Kuhn’s “Copernican Revolution,” which I highly recommend!

Ms. Au’s favorite puzzle is Izzi, another classic like the Soma Cube. She also likes 24, Chocolate Fix (which we played at our Julia Robinson Math Festival in June), and modular origami–here, you fold several pieces of paper each into a ‘unit’, and then combine the units into a larger model. When I first started teaching I was introduced to this technique through the work of Tomoko Fuse–check out this tutorial based on Fuse’s work. Used copies of Fuse’s “Unit Origami: Multidimensional Transformations” can be picked up cheap!

Matt Moran went with a classic–Connect 4. This game has been solved, although with 4,531,985,219,092 game positions I doubt this will influence your own game play. And finally, PJ Karafiol suggested Meta-Forms–like Chocolate Fix or the ever popular Traffic Jam puzzle, Meta-Forms start out easy but get progressively harder.

We at MC2 are looking forward to seeing you in January. In the mean time, play with some mathematical toys, games, and books, and give the gift of math!


Saving Face(book); Giving (Tuesday) Thanks

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Dear MC2 Community, thank you for:

  • Your generous giving on Giving Tuesday, before, and after!
  • Supporting QED, where 135 kids produced remarkable projects that left judges–PhD students, mathematicians, postdocs, outstanding school teachers–saying: “The students were once again, awesome!” and “[The best part was] being able to see so many fascinating problems/projects that students worked on. Some of them blew me away!”
  • Allowing me to say, “If you can arrange for a van to circulate to your schools and pick up kids for math circles, our community will raise the money to pay for it,” yesterday at a gathering of elementary school principals in Little Village.
  • Giving MC2 the support to visit Back of the Yards, Ashburn, and Morgan Park next week with the confidence that we will be able to open at least one new math circle this fall!

According to #ILGive, MC2 is a small non-profit, which they define as an organization with a budget less than $2,000,000, and I can assure you that we qualify. Because of the commitment of our community, we are receiving a $2,000 prize from #ILGive for “Most Unique Donors by Budget” (small non-profit category)!

On Giving Tuesday we raised $21,000, and with this $2,000 prize we were within $7,000 of our Giving Tuesday goal. People have kept on giving, and we have raised $4,000 more in the past week and a half; we are hoping to top $30k by the end of December–in other words, it’s not too late to give! See our December Drive page.

I was busily posting about our fundraiser on GT and tagging many friends and former students. Facebook decided that my activity was ‘unusual’ and booted me out of my account! Suffice to say as the leader of a non-profit, Giving Tuesday is not a great day to be locked out of the largest social network in the world.

Fortunately, I tapped into my teacher social network, and while Facebook does not have phone, email, or chat support, I had my secret weapon–former student support. I want to thank Adam Fishman, now Facebook employee, who got me back into my account, and who also gave a generous gift to our campaign. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that PJ Karafiol, our board chair, learned of my struggles and reached out to my former students on Facebook and raised $1,600 in my name while I was in Facebook purgatory–and which he then MATCHED.

So thanks everyone, thanks Adam, and thanks PJ! 🙂


QED: Quite (an) Excellent Day

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Our research symposium is a wrap! Last Saturday 130 students attended the latest annual QED, and the consensus was that this was our most outstanding symposium to date!

Check out our photographs in the post below to get of a sense of what a special day it was! There are lots of thanks to go around:

  • Lawrence Tanzman, MC2 Board Member, and senior Jason Chen, QED participant(!) ran our annual Guesstimathon. (For those not in the know, the Guesstimathon asks participants to guess a range of values for certain fun facts–highlights from this year included, “The number of people who watched all episodes of ‘Stranger Things 2’ within 24 hours of its release,” and, “The number of tweets President Donald Trump has made on his account as of December 1st, 2017.” No technology allowed to help guess the answers, of course!)
  • UIC’s Daniel Groves gave our keynote address, focusing on geometry, starting in the plane and ending up on the sphere, giving a flavor of what non-Euclidean geometry is for the novice.
  • Our 32 judges hailed from across the mathematical spectrum:
    • Postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduate students from UIC, UChicago, and DePaul–Ben Usha, Tim Black, Maxime Bergeron, Janet Page, Samuel Dodds, Mariya Sardarli, and Nathan Lopez, along with professor Lynn Narasimhan.
    • Community members with math and science backgrounds–John Brown, Hal Finkel, Nate Harman, Peyton Morgan, Jerry Winn, Jim Mallernee, Kelly Hally (math circle parent!), Rob Creel, Oren Livne, Peter Morfe, Zach Fogelson, Nolan Winkler, Jesse Wang, and Lucie Weng.
    • Middle and high school teachers–Joe Ochiltree, Rutha Dixon, Matt Rosenberg, Serg Cvetkovic, Stu Abram, Aimee Hart, Alison Ridgway, Mike Calderbank, along with PJ Karafiol, who is now a principal but is still a math teacher at heart!
  • Our sponsors: Dell, which gave out drones(!) to some of our high school participants; Wolfram, which shared many prizes and is providing free access to Mathematica and Wolfram Alpha to every student who had a project in QED; the American Mathematical Society, which donated over $2,000 in books to give away; and Citadel, which paid for tshirts, pizza, and some truly excellent ear muffs along with other gifts. Moreover, several Citadel employees helped judge QED projects!
  • A special thanks to Benjamin Walker who took most of the photos in our montage below.
  • The folks behind the scenes who organized the judging and kept the event running smoothly–Julienne Au, Matt Moran, Mike Caines, Dan Kang, and Scott Galson.
  • Finally, thanks to all of the teachers who supported these students create such outstanding projects. 🙂

QED 2018 will be held on Saturday, December 1st. Get those projects started now!