Women in Mathematics and Math Circles

By | Equity, Program

Mathematics is a human activity. As such, it crosses all boundaries of identity. As an organization that is determined to provide access to engaging and novel mathematics to all 5th to 12th graders across Chicago, it’s vital that we actively promote this idea.

To date, the five programming levels we’ve taught have been named after well known mathematicians from history: Archimedes, Brahmagupta, Cantor, DesCartes, and Euler. This has had the advantage of simple alphabetical order; it has had the drawback that all of these mathematicians are men.

This fall we will rename two levels: Haynes and Kovalevsky (and we will drop the names Archimedes and DesCartes). In 1943 Euphemia Lofton Haynes was the first black woman in America to earn a PhD in mathematics at Catholic University (prior to her PhD she was a master’s student at the University of Chicago). In 1874 Sonia Kovalevsky was the first woman in history to earn a PhD.

Women have played a significant part in the development of the Math Circles of Chicago. Two current PhD students at UIC, Ellie Dannenberg and Janet Page, have taught and planned more MC^2 sessions than anyone else in our six year history (and their plans are used by teachers at four of our sites). Ann Turner, math circle parent, founded our site at Audubon (now Lane Tech), which she managed voluntarily until I was hired a year ago.

I hope that changing these names is a step towards changing the identity of math enrichment. We want our students to reflect our community and the diversity that makes up the city of Chicago, and in that spirit we wanted to honor a diverse group of math pioneers through these names!

Doing the Unpossible: Teaching and Learning in Newfoundland

By | Equity

Yesterday I returned from a serendipitous trip to St. John’s in Newfoundland. An organization called Unpossible invited me to share my thinking about Math Circles as they work to set up their own local program. (I also saw a bunch of whales and puffins. It was amazing.)

Learning in cultural exchange is inevitable. As I talked to Unpossible staff about our practices in MC^2, we worked to think about how to translate what we do in Chicago into their context in St. John’s. The attempt to transfer ideas forces you to consider closely what’s essential in your work. The act of making your values clear to others helps you clarify them to yourself.

Unpossible’s own values were eye opening to me. From their website: “The RPM Challenge is a challenge to anyone—novice or professional—to record an album in the month of February. It’s not a contest. It’s for fun,” and “The Stand Up Challenge is a call to everyone to create, rehearse, and perform a five minute set of original stand-up comedy in the month of June.”

Ostensibly my trip was to teach them to set up their own math circles—we talked about student agency, about interesting problems with ‘Low floors and High Ceilings’, we talked about addressing students’ identity as a person who does mathematics. But I learned at least as much from them about their ethos of inviting everyone to participate and create.

The all-inclusiveness of Unpossible’s value system is something I can’t stop thinking about.

I used to say that we looked to serve all kids in Chicago interested in math, but now I’ll say that we look to serve all kids in Chicago, period. In St. John’s, if you have a dream of recording your own album or doing stand up, Unpossible is making it real. In Chicago, If you can imagine doing interesting mathematics, we’ll make it a reality.