Julia Robinson 2019: Best Ever!

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315 people–that’s the way to end the year! We were happy to host our largest group ever for a Julia Robinson Math Festival. Woohoo!

Thanks again to Matt Moran who put the event together, and the wide range of people who ran the tables:

  • Professors Eugenia Cheng, Dhruv Mubayi, Selma Yildirim
  • Teachers Martin Bentley, Serg Cvetkovic, Christine Kim, Joe Ochiltree, Eric Rios, Graham Rosby, Sanya Singh, and Angela Tobias
  • Doctoral Students Hana Ahreum, Sara Rezvi, and Sarah Reitzes
  • Undergraduate Math and Math Ed Major Peter Smith
  • Tech Guru Abhinav Gandhi
  • Parents Kristin Merrill and Donella Taylor

A very special day–I’ll post some photos in a minute!


Primary Math Circles?

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The question I’m asked most frequently is, “Can my 4th graders come to math circles?” The answer is generally no (see our FAQ here).

Irene Gottlieb asked the same question, but she refused to take no for an answer. Instead, she went off and started a math circle on her own!

Interested? If you have a child in 1st to 4th grade check out Irene’s website. This is not an MC2 program, but it’s in the same spirit–it’s free!

Their next session will be on June 17th, and it meets in Chicago at a trampoline park. What’s not to like?

Congratulations: QED Turns Gold; Tricolorability for Pre-Teens

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When our judges saw Lillian Jirousek’s project at QED they were blown away. Now they aren’t the only ones.

Congratulations to Lillian for earning best in category (math!) at the state science fair, which came with a $2,000 scholarship! In her project, “The Mercurial Matrix,” Lillian explored the relationship between the adjacency matrix and walks on graphs.

Kudos for Amanda Ruch and Sara Rezvi for recently publishing, Untangling the “Knot” Your Typical Math Problem in the 25th Anniversary issue of Teaching Children Mathematics. Sara and Amanda based their article on an activity they implemented in MC2’s summer camp in 2018. Amanda is the lead teacher for MC2’s Haynes level (5th and 6th graders); Sara is the city wide lead for Brahmagupta (7th and 8th graders).

Amanda and Sara’s lesson concerned ways in which mathematicians can use the tricolorability to distinguish knots. Pulling off this topological lesson for 5th and 6th graders involved pipe cleaners, colored pencils, and a willingness to explore.

Congratulations to you all!

An End of the Year Celebration in the Form of a Festival

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Please join us in closing out the school year by attending our 3rd annual Julia Robinson Math Festival!

Where:             Payton Prep, 1034 N. Wells

When:              Saturday, June 1st, 1PM-3PM

Who:                 3rd-8th Graders and their parents

What:               A gymnasium filled with more than a dozen activities featuring unusual, fun, weird, inspiring, easy/hard/everything in between, MATH!

How do I sign up?  www.tinyurl.com/mc2jrmf2019

See you there!

PS. Teachers and high schoolers–please volunteer to help us run this thing! Email info@mathcirclesofchicago.org if you are interested. 🙂

Hermione Granger was a Terrible Student

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MC2 teachers across the city write each other all of the time to make suggestions and improve our plans.

After teaching last week at Lane Tech, Peter Smith reflected, “I had initially thought that the students would struggle with this problem, since I know I did when I first encountered it. However, about a third of the class instantly knew the punchline.” His question: What should we do when this happens?

This is a question for both teachers and students. I was reminded of Hermione Granger in Harry Potter. Hermione always knew the answers, and her response to this situation was inevitably the same: she raised her hand as quickly as possible, waved that hand aggressively, and immediately blurted out the answer.

I’d like the Hermiones out there to know there are other options.

  1. Help others. This can be the 2nd worst option after blurting out. It all depends on the help you offer. Students (and teachers) often ask leading questions. My standard bad example is, “Could you use the Pythagorean Theorem?”
  2. Ask others non-leading questions. The best questions in a math class are those that transfer to many other questions. Here’s a better question: “Do you know any related theorems?” Other questions to try: “What’s the unknown?” “Can you make a table?” “Can you make a simpler problem?” The beauty of transferable questions is that you are teaching someone a habit of mind–questions they can always ask themselves whenever they get stuck.
  3. Wait. Give everyone else time to think. Works for students and teachers alike.
  4. Try to solve the problem in a new way. You might already know the answer because someone showed you how to do it before. Can you come up with your own method?
  5. Create your own problem. Generalize. Take a 2 dimensional problem and make it 3 dimensional. Change the rules of the game. A great way to pass the time as you give others time to think for themselves.

We can all out perform Hermione in the classroom if we can learn to assert less, ask more, and create our own challenges. And, most importantly, we’ll be better students and teachers if we concern ourselves with everyone’s learning, rather than only our own!

Summer, Shirts, and Spring

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Summer Camps

Registration for our FREE, 2 week summer camps opens on Monday! Please note that our high school camp will be led by the inestimable Eugenia Cheng, mathematician, author, pianist, chef, and scientist in residence at the Art Institute. Dr. Cheng plans to write a book based on the mathematics she teaches in math circles this summer!

Camp 1: Zizumbo/Torres School, 4248 W. 47th St.

Current 5th-8th graders

Monday-Friday, 9:00AM-Noon, July 15th-26th

Camp 2: Payton Prep, 1034 N. Wells

Current 5th-8th graders

Monday-Friday, 9:00AM-Noon, July 15th-26th

Camp 3: Jones Prep, 700 S. State

Current 9th-12th graders

Monday-Friday, Noon-3:00PM, July 22nd-August 2nd

Registration will open on Monday, March 11th, and we will run our lottery on Sunday, March 31st. Priority will be given to kids who have been enrolled in math circles during this current school year.


Our new shirts will be arriving this week. Look for them to be on sale at a math circle near you! Special thanks to Jen Zimmerman, our UChicago site coordinator, for her design! Jen shows yet again that she can do anything. 🙂 

Spring Registration

While the lottery has run, registration is still open, with spots available on a first come, first serve basis!

The Art of Podcasting

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When I was in high school, a favorite movie was a signifier of identity. At the time, I thought that the film Repo Man had changed my life. Now I’m more likely to share my favorite podcasts as cultural markers: Reply AllThe NodStay Tuned with Preet.

Last week I was thrilled to discover that the Art of Problem Solving has launched a new podcast called After Math. Richard Rusczyk hosts the show and has put out four episodes to date. I’ve been aware of Richard’s work since he started AoPS and also through the elegant problems he wrote for the Mandelbrot Competition (which was much more about beautiful mathematics than competition).

MC2 students will be familiar with After Math’s first guest, Po-Shen Loh, who has given a couple of MC2 hosted talks. They are also likely to be familiar with the work of Eli Luberoff, the creator of Desmos. If I had to choose an episode to start with, however, I’d recommend the one that features Meena Boppana.

Meena is an advocate for increasing diversity in STEM, and her conversation with Richard initially centers on her experience as a girl and young woman in math classes and enrichment settings (MathCounts, Harvard). The podcast is extremely thoughtful about issues of identity and the way in which the ‘math world’ is, and how it is changing. I found Meena to be an inspiration, and I’m sure that others in the MC2 community will too!

Summer Plans

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While it hardly seems to be appropriate to be writing about summer on the coldest day in Chicago in 25 years, we have news! In the summer of 2019 MC2 will be holding camps at two sites. We expect one site will continue to be Walter Payton, and the other will be either on Chicago’s southwest or south sides. The camps will be open to current 5th to 8th graders, and will last for two full weeks. More information coming in February!

Will we be doing anything for high schoolers this summer? Yes! We are again looking to collaborate with mathematician, author, pianist, chef, and all around nice person Eugenia Cheng to offer a free camp next summer. In 2018 Dr. Cheng offered a 3 day summer mini-camp; in 2019 she’s hoping to run a two week experience that will result in a new book!

Last year I posted links to several math camps. Nearby, our sister program UChicago YSP runs an annual camp for 7th-12th graders that may be the best know summer math camp in the country. Their website still references 2018, but I expect this will be updated soon–last year the application deadline was in early April.

I’ll mention two more camps this year. If I were in high school, I’d be thrilled to attend Wolfram’s Summer Camp in Massachusetts. Wolfram sponsors QED: Chicago’s Youth Math Symposium, and they publish Mathematica and Wolfram Alpha, my two favorite pieces of mind boggling math software.

There aren’t as many middle school math camps in the world as their should be, so it’s worth checking out MathPath, which is not too far away in Grand Rapids. Like Wolfram, MathPath accepts students on a rolling basis. I appreciate Math Path’s stance that they are, “An enrichment program, not an acceleration program.” It’s a philosophy they share with MC2!

My dream is that we’ll grow our camps in Chicago until hundreds of students participate, and we’ll build our students’ confidence to travel to other camps in the summer after they are with us for a few years. We’ll keep growing exponentially until this vision becomes a reality!

Making Plans

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A student passing through all five MC2 program levels can experience over 150 different ‘lessons’. I’m hesitant to refer to them as lessons, however, because that word gives the wrong impression. A session is built much more around student thinking than a pre-determined skill or unit of knowledge that the ‘teacher’ (session leader) decides upon in advance.

This raises the question–what makes a good idea for a math circle session? When an idea looks promising, how does it get developed?

Recently I came across an idea that is being built into a session plan, and which illustrates the development process.

1. Somebody Shares a Problem

In this case, Sendhil Revuluri, an MC2 Board Member, shared a post on Quora by Alon Amit, a Proof School Trustee (link at the bottom of this post).

The four vertices of a square determine exactly two lengths in the plane. What other arrangements of four points in the plane have this property?

2. Socialize with Someone

Vacationing in Minnesota with family, I played with the problem with my nephew Connor. Three times we went back in forth, saying that we had found all the solutions (each time this was said invalidated the previous assertion!)

That was when I knew then the problem had potential to be at the center of a math circle session. When working alone, it was easy to convince yourself that you were done, so having a partner really helped you build skepticism in your completion. Plus, it was easy to start–we weren’t being formal, drawing rough sketches, explaining our work to each other, exchanging ideas. Math circles for two.

3. Socialize with Someone Else

The following week I was back in Chicago, having lunch with Adam, a former high school student of mine. I shared the problem with him and said, “If we could build a math circle session around this, we need some productive extensions.” It can be easy to extend problems, but not all extensions are equally productive.

Adam and I started thinking about the problem in three dimensions. We used napkins, pens, gesturing, what we knew from the two dimensional problem to build our new ideas. The opportunity to build on prior ideas is the hallmark of a good extension–I was also happy to find that I kept making assertions that turned out to be wrong, just in the two dimensional case. Mathematically and socially, the problem worked!

4. Write out a Plan

This step is the obvious one.

5. Socialize with Math Circle Teachers and Revise for Several Years

We’ll be working on this step for a while. Part of the beauty of MC2 is that some of our programs exist at all seven of our sites, and all those teachers can provide a lot of refinement!


Developing math circle sessions is a lot like the sessions themselves. While someone gives you a problem, you have to make it your own, and you’ll learn more and end up with better results if you work on it with someone else. Send us your ideas! info@mathcirclesofchicago.org


See Alon Amit’s original post on Quora. 



QED Review

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Another QED is in the books! Thank you:

  • Bridget Tenner, our wonderful speaker!
  • Lawrence Tanzmann, for another intriguing Guesstimathon!
  • Mike Caines, for running the show!

What’s a Guesstimathon? Well, what’s the world record for the number of people doing the Floss Dance? And no googling–Guesstimate! See this year’s Guesstimathon questions and rules if you are interested. 

Dr. Tenner talked about how her tastes in math developed when she started out–Sudoku, origami, crafts, the Game of Set, Logic puzzles, Dots and Boxes. This led her to Combinatorics–where the problems can be easy to understand but very hard to solve! She went on to talk about the surprising mathematics of avoidance–some strings are easier or harder to avoid than you think!

Lots of work goes on behind the scenes–thanks to Mike Caines for his hard work making sure that QED came off without a hitch. We had students from across the city, and judges from across the mathematical world–professors, Phd Students, secondary and primary teachers, engineers, data scientists, and everything in between. Be sure to check out the photos in my last blog post, and we hope to see all of you at QED 2019!