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!


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!


170 Thank Yous

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Thank YOU!

Yesterday we raised over $21,000 through your 170 gifts. For those who like to look at the numbers, we were 6th in the state in the number of donors and 15th in funds raised, which shows the commitment and passion of our community!

But what’s much more important is what this money enables us to do:

  • On our first day of winter registration (aka “Registering Tuesday”), 300 kids signed up. We’ll double this number by January. This funding keeps the doors open.
  • We can look to the future with confidence. We plan on opening an 8th site. We want to add a 2nd summer site. These funds will allow us to expand with confidence.
  • More than 100 kids are coming to our Math Symposium, QED, this Saturday. The quality of the original mathematics produced for QED is amazing. You support this outlet for our future mathematicians, scientists, and engineers.
  • We’ll start to add more infrastructure–from half an employee now to 1.5 over the next year (those feeling that these numbers should be integers, and, really, natural numbers, try not to worry about it). This infrastructure will help us maintain the high quality experience we offer in all of our programs.
  • We can continue to say yes to partner organizations like Chicago Hopes for Kids, sending our teachers to work with kids in homeless and domestic violence shelters.

Your gifts make the difference. Thank you!


PS More and more people are using employer matching gifts to maximize their donation. If you think you might be able to get a match for what you gave, our EIN is 45-2071512.

PPS If you didn’t get a chance yesterday to give but would still like to, this link works! And, math circle families, don’t forget to re-register by 12/13 for re-enrollment or to maximize your chances in the lottery!

QED: A great place to visit!

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Over the past few weeks I’ve been making the grand tour of our seven math circle sites. Several parents have gotten interested in QED, our Math Symposium, and were disappointed that pre-registration had just ended. They wanted to know–couldn’t there be some way for their kids to come see projects and be part of the event, to inspire them to come next year?

There is now!

If you’d like to visit QED on December 1st, please complete this google form. (5th-12th graders only please.)

10:00AM Welcome and Tour Projects

11:00AM Participate in the Guesstimathon

Noon Pizza and Project Brainstorming

1:00PM Keynote Talk, Bridget Tenner, Professor of Mathematics, DePaul University

Note that the Mathematical Association of America has donated books that we will give away–every student will receive at least one (and probably two!)


Math is the Real World Girl’s Club

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The Chicago Network, an organization of Chicago’s leading professional women, is holding a career exploration night. Young women (and their parents) are invited to hear a panel of prominent women who use math in their careers.

The event takes place on Monday, October 29th, from 5:30-7:00PM at Cushman & Wakefield, 225 W. Wacker #3000. Learn how these women got interested in math when they were young, how they started their careers, and what their jobs look like today!

RSVP here!

On a Mission

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Last week MC2 completed a six month strategic planning process. In three years we plan to double in size, expand our summer camps, all while maintaining the quality of our programs. We’ve also refined our mission and our values:

The mission of the Math Circles of Chicago is to create opportunities for all children across Chicago to develop a passion for mathematics.

Core Values
1. Math should be fun and empowering
2. Every child can do and enjoy rich math
3. Every child deserves equitable access to these experiences
4. Students should be the agents of their own learning
5. Math can and should be a cooperative endeavor

In the context of over-testing and competition, this mission and these values resonate. Mathematics shouldn’t be seen as a chore; it shouldn’t be for the few; in the real world, it isn’t an individual endeavor. Our mission is to create opportunities for a better mathematical experience.

Math Circles of Chicago achieves its mission by providing free, unique math enrichment programs for 5th–12th grade students of diverse backgrounds. All Chicago, every kid, amazing math.


New at MC2!

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Math Circles of Chicago is serious about its commitment to provide all kids in Chicago access to fun, confidence building, novel math. In turn, we are always trying to expand, experiment, and improve!

  • Morgan Park    Our 7th site opens this fall. Morgan Park is on Chicago’s far south side, 10 miles from our closest site at UChicago, so we hope to recruit a new crop of kids who couldn’t come to MC2 before! We will hold Haynes (5th/6th grade) and Brahmagupta (7th/8th) sessions at Morgan Park High School on Monday afternoons. We are also trying another experiment–weekly sessions (elsewhere we meet bi-weekly).
  • Bridgeport Expansion    For several years we’ve held MC2 sessions at Benton House in Bridgeport. That site only had one classroom, so we’re moving to a new location–St. Therese on 23rd St. This move will allow us to expand to three groups of students, Haynes, Brahmagupta, and Cantor (Algebra 1/Geometry students). 
  • Summer Camps    Through the generous support of the CME Group Foundation we’ve held brief summer camps the past two years. We are taking a serious look at expanding and lengthening these camps, making them permanent, and announcing them earlier in the year to make it easier for families to plan to attend. Expect a formal announcement in December.
  • Homeless Shelters    Last spring we started holding math circle sessions in a local shelter, and this work continued this summer at a 2nd location. This upcoming year we will be leading sessions in up to three shelters.

We’re proud to say that all of our programs have remained free as we’ve continued to grow. We’ve been able to do this through generous support from families, foundations, and many volunteers. Thanks to everyone–we’re looking forward to another great year!


Math, Guitars, and a House of Cards

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Last week the New York Times published, “Make Your Daughter Practice Math. She’ll Thank You Later. The way we teach math in America hurts all students, but it may be hurting girls most.

It’s the sort of article that leads me to write a Comment, but many people beat me to it. Typical were responses about a father forcing the child to memorize times tables, which the child resented at the time, but boy was dad proud the day that PhD was earned (this Comment was an ‘NYT Pick’).

The editorial compares learning math to learning a musical instrument. Just like learning to play the guitar, “Simply understanding how a chord is constructed isn’t the equivalent of being able to play the chord….The word “rote” has a bad rap in modern-day learning”.

The piece argues that math teaching places too much emphasis on conceptual understanding, and not enough on the kind of drill that makes reciting times tables automatic.

The problem is that the author here doesn’t take the analogy far enough. True, the goal of playing a guitar is not understanding why a chord is a chord, but the goal of playing a guitar is also not playing chords.

The goal is to make music.

So what’s the object of doing math? It’s not doing times tables. It’s conceptual understanding itself.

Now, I don’t actually disagree that kids need to be fluent mathematically, just as there is value in learning to play individual chords on a guitar as a route to playing a full piece. But memorizing times tables is actually the equivalent of memorizing where your fingers go rather than actually placing those fingers properly on the fret board.

So how do you learn to ‘play’ math the right way?

What is 9 x 7? 63. How do I know this?

  • 10 x 7  is 70. To get 9 7’s, 70 – 7 = 63.
  • 5 x 7 = 35 and 4 x 7 = 28, and 35 + 28 = 63.
  • 10 x 10 = 100. 9 x 11 = 99. 12 x 12 = 144. 11 x 13 = 143. I see a pattern. Since 8 x 8 = 64, multiplying 1 less than 8 by 1 more than 8 is 63. Later in Algebra I’ll be able to connect this to the full generalization that (x + 1)(x – 1) = x^2 – 1, a special case of what’s called a, “Difference of squares.”
  • It’s 63 because I have it memorized.

The memorization came after I made connections. This result fit into an overall structure, with the truth of any one piece fitting into a larger picture. And, moreover, it fit into a future picture. When it came time for Algebra, my experience learning arithmetic fit. I didn’t go on to memorize the distributive property and the difference of squares pattern, I connected them to prior learning.

“Rote” has a bad rap in modern math learning for good reasons. The article goes on to say, “But girls especially could benefit from some extra required practice, which would not only break the cycle of dislike-avoidance-further dislike, but build confidence.”

My 25 years of teaching experience tells me the opposite. When students learn by rote, they are two years away from never being successful in math again. When the math you know is a disconnected, unstructured house of cards, you don’t know when it will fall apart, but you know that it will.