QED, our annual math symposium is just around the corner. We have important announcements!

• The pre-registration deadline for QED has been extended due to the recent school closure. Please pre-register by Tuesday, November 19th. (The previous deadline was the 12th). High School students, be reminded that your project papers must be submitted by that date! Middle schoolers do not need to submit papers in advance. Pre-register here!
• Are you still looking for a project idea? MC2 teachers just conducted a problem brainstorming session–email qed@mathcirclesofchicago.org if you’d like to see one!
• If you aren’t ready to participate in QED this year, we take visitors. Sign up here to get an intro to QED, visit projects, try our Guesstimathon, brainstorm an idea for next year (while eating pizza), and attend the QED Talk.
• Speaking of our QED Talk, this year’s speaker is Peter Tingley of Loyola University. Dr. Tingley is a leader of the Chicago Math Teacher’s Circle, and, I claim, he will teach every QED participant and guest how to juggle. We will provide the juggling balls–just come ready to learn.

So, QED. Imagine a science fair. But with math and computer science projects. Where you do things like guess the number of calories in a single serving of Chocolate Chip Cookie-Doug Cheesecake from the Cheesecake Factory. And you learn how to juggle.

You have to come.

In September I visited all eight MC2 sites and met with parents. Whenever I hold these meetings, I do a quick math circle activity to help parents understand what’s happening in our classrooms.

This experience gave me the chance to reflect on what it is we do in math circles. I talk a lot about problem solving, and it occurred to me that it would be a good idea to explain what a problem is. Let’s start with what it isn’t (at least spiritually);

A problem is not a puzzle.

A problem is not an exercise.

And, thus, a problem is in the eye of the beholder.

5 + 7 can be a problem for a first grader, if they apply different strategies to get a result. But at an older age, this kind of arithmetic becomes an exercise–something routine and familiar. The point isn’t that exercises are bad–they just aren’t what we do in math circles.

Puzzles can be non-routine, but many puzzles are non-routine to an extreme. They have an answer, but the discovery of that answer often doesn’t transfer to other contexts. This can make puzzles annoying, because the pay off in solving a puzzle sometimes falls flat, like a bad trick (here’s an old post about my favorite annoying puzzle).

A problem has the best qualities of both puzzles and exercises. They are non-routine. There is a cognitive demand in the unfamiliar. You might give up–hence it’s nice to attempt problems in a safe, fun space like a math circle that promotes persistence. And problem solutions aren’t dead ends–they connect. They may equip you to solve other problems–in fact, when you succeed in solving a problem, new problems suggest themselves. If a problem is about 5 x 5 array of squares, can you solve it for 10 x 10 array? n x n? Three dimensionally? What if the squares were triangles?

In math circles, we sometimes use puzzles to hook students at the outset of a session, but generally they are used only as a path to engage in the session’s main problem (or, perhaps, better to say ‘problem space’.) And we largely leave exercises to the standard school classroom.

As an organization we’re happy to say we have a lot of problems. 🙂

Over the past two weeks I’ve attended the opening of all seven of our sites this fall (with #8 this Saturday at Back of the Yards). The most common parent questions:

• Is there anything like MC2 for kids not yet in 5th grade?
• My child wants to do even more math. What else is there besides MC2?

Here’s a grab bag of resources to check out!

1. A Math Circle for Grades 1 to 4.
Irene Gottlieb has gone to great lengths to establish a math circle for 1st to 4th graders. She’s rented a space at 1164 N. Milwaukee, and she just published her fall calendar–the first session is on October 10th. Follow the link and sign up!

2. Math for Love
My friend Dan Finkel has great games, a great TED Talk, and great resources on his mathforlove webpage.

3. Art of Problem Solving
Books, online classes, and online community of almost a half million kids.

4. Girl’s Angle
A Math Club for Girls, with events like Math Collaborations, “A mathematically intense alternative to math competitions.”

Last, but not least (not that it’s a competition), engage in some MC2 sponsored mathematical research. On December 7th we’ll host QED: Chicago’s Youth Math Symposium, where students in grades 5 to 12 present their independent research. We’re trying an experiment this year, attempting to match up students with a partner, and then with a QED adviser. Interested? Email qed@mathcirclesofchicago.org. And please help us spread around our flyer–thanks!

When the New York Times publishes a big story about math and school children, my inbox fills up.

Most recently, “The Right Answer? 8,186,699,633,530,061 (An Abacus Makes It Look Almost Easy“. Follow the link and check out the first photo. Here’s what I see:

• A very large group of children gathered together to sit separately and work individually.
• They work alone on a procedure, which they’ve learned to employ very rapidly.
• They did not invent the abacus algorithm themselves.  No one is explaining how they arrived at their answers, and why would they?

Each June MC2 holds a Julia Robinson Math Festival, where you’ll find 20 tables of math circle activities. Compare a photo from our festival with the photo from the NYT–I admit that the New York Times’ photographer is better than me:

Here’s what you’ll see at a Julia Robinson Math Festival:

• A large group of students, with adults, doing mathematics together.
• People working together on a variety of problems where everyone gets to choose the math that they attempt, at their own pace.
• Participants solving problems in their own way and explaining their thinking to others.

I recognize the value in sharing mathematical cultural practices like the use of an abacus. And I’ve seen how participation in competition can help children identify with the subject.

But I firmly believe that if we want math to be accessible to all, we need to build events where our children have choice, collaborate, and create and explain their own mathematical thinking.

In conclusion–Julia Robinson Math Festivals and Math Circles for all!

Our vision for math circles is two fold.

1. We want children in math circles to have fun, to actively engage in rich and unusual mathematics, and to want to do more math in the future.
2. We want to support a community of teachers who are striving to make #1 happen.

Teaching is difficult. What lay people (non-teachers) often fail to understand is that good teaching is the product of an environment where teachers feel like part of a community, where they hang out with other teachers–let’s face it, to commiserate–but ultimately to share ideas and to improve.

I know MC2 is growing as an organization because I can see evidence of that teaching community in all of the work that we do.

This is what good teaching looks like: Notice how the mathematics here from our summer program that is being ‘discussed’ is the creation of a student–not the teacher. Notice that 13–13!–other students have shared their thinking about that first student’s work.

If you look at other photographs from the summer program in the blog post that precedes this one, you’ll see much more indirect evidence of good teaching. You’ll see students working together, you’ll see students engaged in tasks beyond what’s usually taught in school classrooms, and, you’ll see kids in a math class…smiling.

In our surveys, you’ll see kids saying things like: “The things you learn in math circles, you don’t really learn in school,” and that what they liked best was that, “It is engaging and involves everyone.” And parents: “‘At camp my daughter was challenged and enjoyed having a voice,” as well as, “My child was exposed to mostly drill and practices kind of math. And as a result didn’t like math. To him math is something he has to do in school. But through math circles he now tasted the creative + engaging side of math. He is interested in math now.”

These photographs and these words are a reflection of our community of teachers!

Our camps at Zizumbo and Payton have now concluded, and I wanted to give a few words of thanks! To Chris Allen, Cynthia Ortiz, and the staff at Zizumbo, thank you for being so welcoming! This was our first summer on the southwest side, and it was a pleasure to spend time in such a beautiful building with such a wonderful staff!

At Payton, thanks going out to Mary Grubich and David Adamji for coordinating the space, and to Judy, Cookie, and the rest of the team for taking care of us every day. Math Circles of Chicago launched at Payton eight years ago, and it still feels like home.

Finally, the greatest part of our success is a result of the hard work of our teaching staff: Amanda Ruch, Rutha Dixon, Graham Rosby, Lisa Cash, Alison Ridgway, ably supported by Rileigh Luczak, Nina Tansey, Lauren Sands, Michael Klychmann, Isabel Juarez, and Kara Fischer–thanks to you all!

The best way I can recognize our teachers and counselors is through sharing survey comments parents made at the end of the camp:

• My daughter used to love math. After a few years of bad math experiences, my daughter hated math. Thank you for helping her find her way back to her love of this subject!
• I loved seeing E, work on the problems at home. He was eager and driven to solve the problems. (particularly math hall of fame.)
• My daughter has had a 20+ point gain and received an A letter grade in math since participating in this program
• A. has passed math and didn’t believe she could do it. At camp she was challenged and enjoyed having a voice.
• My daughter was very hesitant about coming to Math Circles and repeatedly told me “I do not need help in math”. I told her it wasn’t really about help but having fun w/ math. After the first day, she came home so happy and couldn’t wait to go back.
• My son inherited my math anxiety, it’s been hard for him, and occasionally teachers at school have been overwhelmed and less than helpful when he’s had difficulties. This has been so helpful! I appreciate it so much! It’s so much more help!
• She has learned how to apply math outside of the classroom setting. She has always enjoyed math and understood it. Now, she knows some different strategies to solve certain problems; which is so much more interesting.
• My child was exposed to mostly drill and practices kind of math. And as a result didn’t like math. To him math is something he has to do in school. But through math circles he now tasted the creative + engaging side of math. He is interested in math.
• Math Circles allowed my son to work together with other kids his own age solving challenging math problems, & had fun while he also made new friends from different parts of the city. He learned to see math in a different light beyond typical classroom problems.

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!

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?