Summer Plans 2020

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Our summer plans have been approved! We will share finalized details in early March, but here some initial details:

1. Locations, Times, Dates, and Grade Levels

A. Back of the Yards College Prep: Rising 6th and rising 7th graders, July 13th to July 17th, 9AM-4PM (the meeting time may shift, but this will be an ‘all day’ camp)

B. Payton Prep: Rising 6th, rising 7th, and rising 8th graders, July 13th to July 17th and July 20th-July 24th, 9AM-noon.

C. Jones Prep: Rising 9th to 13th graders, July 13th to July 24th, Noon-3PM

2. Sliding Scale Tuition

Full tuition in any of these programs is $300 per week.

Students who have their school counselor confirm that they should receive reduced tuition will pay no tuition for camp.

Other students may make a financial needs statement and pay $150/half-tuition.

3. Signing Up

We expect to open summer registration in early March, with a lottery to be held by the end of the month. Many more details soon!

MC2 Friends in the News

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Every once and a while Po-Shen Loh opens the year with a talk for MC2 students. So it was exciting to see last week that the New York Times featured an entire article on one of Dr. Loh’s recent discoveries. This Professor’s ‘Amazing Trick Makes Quadratics Easier–highly recommended!

I also wanted to make a plug for Five Fabulous Math Activities for Your Math Circle. MC2 supporter Japeth Wood and friends have nearly met their stretch goal for their Kickstarter Campaign–please support them, as this book will be a great resource for math circles like ours across the country!


Reading & Writing & Arithmetic

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1. Reading

Roots of Unity, the math opinion page on Scientific American’s webpage comes highly recommended. I’d like to point you to a recent post from December 27th: The Math Reading Challenge 2020. The post encourages you to read math related books in 12 categories, like:

  • A math-related book from the year you were born
  • A math book that helps you make something
  • A nonfiction math book written by a woman [Our colleague Eugenia Cheng’s Beyond Infinity is listed-yay!]
  • A graphic novel about math or mathematicians


Read a book and join the conversation at #MathReadingChallenge2020 on twitter (it’s a community, not a contest). I’m in!

2. Writing

This one is a contest, for 15-18 year olds. Apply for the Steven H. Stogatz Prize for Math Communication. Cash prizes. Submissions are due April 22nd, and, can be a song, a play, a video, etc., etc., celebrating the universality of math.

The contest is being run by MoMath aka the National Museum of Mathematics in NYC. One must hope that a trip to New York is part of the award.

3. My Writing

Today the American Mathematical Society posted my essay, “The Future of Math Enrichment: Math Contests or Math Circles?“. Please read!


QED 2019: Horsing Around or How to Win $1,000,000/N

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Congratulations to all students who participated in QED 2019! You’ll find glamorous photographs in the blogpost following this one, and we hope you are still coveting the ‘fabulous prizes’ you took home Saturday.

Silly contests and serious art fairs

We try to keep QED from being too serious. Lawrence Tanzmann runs our annual Guesstimathon, an internet-free challenge with prompts like, “The number of times Horse appears in the song Old Town Road” or “The number of pages in the first edition of the Harry Potter series” (you can find all the prompts here). The Lowest Positive Integer game asks you to pick the smallest number that no one else does–this year’s winner chose 19 (here’s the distribution of entries). Most popular was our million dollar lottery. You could enter as many times as you like (someone entered 1 billion times), with the unfortunate side effect that the grand prize was $1,000,000 divided by the number of entries. Generously we rounded up the five hundredths of a cent grand prize to a penny.

The highlights, of course, were the QED entries themselves. While some of the project names were also silly (A Can of Worms, Frogs on a Log, Peppermint Experi-MINT), the mathematical content was anything but. Like an Art Fair, there was no competition between entries, just the opportunity to share what you created with the public. Every judge I spoke to after the event was deeply impressed by the level of work they saw.

Judges from all over

We’re proud that we draw judges from many walks of mathematical life, from professors to post-docs to graduate and undergraduate students, teachers from primary to middle to high school, along with some combinations of parent-engineer-financial industry wiz-data scientist. Thanks to you all!  Stu Abram, Maneesha Pradeep, Paul DeRonne, Nailea Curiel, Rutha Dixon, Sam Dodds, Aimee Hart, Jaime McLauglin, Marco Mendez-Duarte, Cornelia Mihailia, Jeremy Judge, Sarah Reitzes, Youjin Lee, Graham Rosby, Minh-Tam Trinh, Matt Rosenberg, Hannah Butler, Melissa Ramirez, Serg Cvetkovic, Abhinav Gandhi, John Marchetta, Faith Medlock, Maxime Bergeron, Kara Fischer, Nate Harman, Edward Huh, Peyton Morgan, Todd Pytel, Kristen Schreck, Eric Xu, and Kevin Zhou.

A word of thanks for our sponsors and friends

Peter Tingley went all out as this year’s QED speaker. Dr. Tingley, a professor at Loyola, obtained 600 hackey sacks with QED & Loyola logos to give away (see the photo), for teaching both the mathematics and the practice of juggling. Lawrence Tanzmann ran the Guesstimathon for the nth year running, where I know n to be somewhere between 4 and 7. Steve Starr hosted our Visiting Students who we expect to return in 2020 with new projects!

Julienne Au managed the judges and Mike Caines managed QED’s logistics; that they did so while also managing the logistics of having their newborn onsite was all the more impressive. Lead judges Paul DeRonne, PJ Karafiol, Dan Kang, and Matt Moran made everything run smoothly. Esperanza Baeza, Anabelle Mendez, Grace Shin, Ralph Banasiak, Paul Buckner, and Dzevida Duheric took care of everything else. Go team QED!

The American Mathematical Association again gave every QED participant a recreational math book, and Wolfram gave them each Mathematica, Wolfram Programing Lab, and Wolfram Alpha, the most advanced mathematics software in the world. Chicago’s own Citadel provided food and shirts. Thanks to you all!

QED Updates, Juggling News

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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 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.

Puzzles and Exercises vs. Problems

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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. 🙂

Give Me More

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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.”

5. Grab Your Partner: QED!
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 And please help us spread around our flyer–thanks!

The Opposite of Math Circles

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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!


What Good Teaching Looks Like

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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!