What To Expect At A Math Festival

By | Events, Program

Chicago is home to many festivals. There are food festivals, music festivals, art festivals, and even MATH festivals! In fact, we’re having the metropolitan area’s biggest festival this Saturday, May 20th! Join us at Payton HS, 1034 N. Wells, 1PM-2:30PM. Sign up here!

You’d be surprised how festive math can be. Math festivals even have famous mathematicians as “headliners”, like Math Circles of Chicago partner, Eugenia Cheng.

What do you do at a math festival? It definitely isn’t one big math tutoring session. At Math Circles of Chicago, we hold Julia Robinson Math Festivals (JRMF) at schools and libraries all over the city. A JRMF is a great source of math games and activities that promote critical thinking, logic, and cooperation. When you play these games you don’t feel like you’re filling out a math worksheet. 

Example 1: Smileys

This game has one rule–if I’m not smiling, and if at least two of my direct neighbors (above, below, left, or right) are smiling, my smile turns on next time. The goal is to get everyone to smile eventually. 

In the grid on the left, 3 faces are smiling. The two faces in red have 2 smiling neighbors, so by the next ‘turn’, they are smiling too. In the middle grid, only one frownie face has two neighbors smiling, so in the next turn it starts to smile. But that’s it–we failed because the bottom row never starts to smile. 

It looks like we should have chosen different faces to smile at the start. Which ones? Is three enough? Can I get everyone to smile (eventually) if I start with only two smiling at first? And what if I change the size of the grid? Can I say something in general for any size grid?

To really get the idea, you need to give it a try yourself. Thankfully our friends at JRMF has an app for that! 

Example 2: Skyscrapers

This is one of our most popular games! We love the Chicago skyline but how do you even plan a skyline? Skyscrapers makes answering that question tons of fun.

The objective of Skyscrapers is for the ‘city planner’ to figure out where to build skyscrapers.

The rules: You need a skyscraper on every square; every row and column must have skyscrapers of different heights; the numbers outside the grid (the clues) tell you how many skyscrapers you can see when you stand there and look in a particular direction.

At right you can see some students giving it a try at our April festival at the Back of the Yards Public Library–come to Payton (or one of our festivals in the fall) to try it out yourself!


Example 3: Jumping Julia

And finally, Jumping Julia–perhaps the most popular math festival puzzle there is. Kids and PARENTS can’t help but get sucked in trying to figure it out first or helping each other reach the goal.

This game has simple rules but can prove to be a real challenge! You start at the top right corner and you can move however many spaces the number says. For example, if you are standing on a 3 you move 3 spaces. You can move up, down, left, and right. You can even move backwards (HINT: Some puzzles require you backtrack to figure it out).  You CAN NOT move diagonally. And, (see the photo below), this is a puzzle where you literally have to jump.

This game is great for younger learners in 3rd or 4th grade and the harder the puzzles get the more of a great brain teaser it is for older learners from 8th grade to adults! This game has a way of leveling the cognitive playing field. Kids love it when they can figure out something that their parents can’t!

Math Circles of Chicago plans on hosting 12 Julia Robinson Math Festivals at Chicago Public Schools and Libraries in the 2023-2024 school year. If you think your child’s school would benefit from a JRMF please do reach out! Math Circles of Chicago does not offer math tutoring but we offer something many overlook in their child’s math education: fun! 

Math Tutoring Not Working? Try Math Enrichment with Math Circles of Chicago!

By | Program, Uncategorized


Math isn’t everyone’s favorite subject. Maybe you had the math teacher that would slap down a packet of blank multiplication problems, turn their timer to 5 minutes, and expect the answers to miraculously flow from the tip of your pencil.

 School can present math as training. Children recite times tables, rehearse PEMDAS, and plug into formulas in a misinformed attempt to help students absorb math’s basic concepts. At Math Circles of Chicago, we understand that math can be just as fun and liberating as finger painting. When you treat math more like art, you create a space for joy and genuine interest.

Math in school is often rushed. Students can feel anxious because they are told they need to go fast in school. School can make students feel like life will be filled with make or break moments in which PEMDAS could save your life.

When we go fast, we cut out critical thinking and student agency. Students passively get trained to perform procedures, rather than having the space to explore and think about their own ideas. Math tutoring can be well intentioned, but still promote the same anxieties.

There’s a lot more to math than what’s taught in school. Math can be connected to art, to civics, to science. There are topics that can be understood by younger students–graph theory, continued fractions, symmetry, etc –that are fun, exciting, but that school doesn’t have time for. That’s where math enrichment comes in! 

Most people look for math tutoring to try to repair their child’s relationship with math, build skills, and improve confidence. Math enrichment is perhaps a better way to achieve these ends, by helping students to respond to unusual situations, to make connections between different branches of mathematics, and by expanding students’ math repertoire in a way that school or math tutoring do not. If you’ve tried math tutoring and it isn’t helping your child, consider math enrichment!

Your kid doesn’t have to hate math–and neither do you for that matter. The most confident kids in gym class are the ones who are playing sports–out of school, or on the school team. Someone who goes to an art summer camp brings what they learn back to the classroom. In the same way, a math circle student gets more experience, and that becomes part of their ‘prior knowledge’. It makes school easier. 

Over and over again, our after school teachers and parents report that their math circle students have greater confidence when speaking about new math concepts.

“I love it when M. comes home and is confident and wants to share a new concept. For example, last week he learned about what day of the week it would be on a certain date in the future. He knew how, and he loved teaching us.”

-MC2 Parent

Take a look at our math programs and summer camps taking place in Chicago this summer! Come next school year, your student will have the confidence to apply that math to any aspect of their lives in and out of the classroom. 

Fall Registration: New guidelines!

By | Program

As we gear up for fall registration I wanted to write a few words for families as they choose a program level. I’m doing this partly because I field a lot of emails concerning placement, and partly because I want to change the way we all conceptualize the process.

Previously many of us have focused on acceleration–that being at a more ‘advanced’ level indicated a kind of status. To me, acceleration is counter to the spirit of the enrichment we are trying to offer. It’s true that some of our younger students are prepared for program levels for older kids because they’ve had opportunities to get ahead. However, most of these students will find plenty to challenge and interest them in the levels recommended for their age group. By participating in each of the levels without accelerating, I really do think each student will reap the greatest benefit.

I don’t intend to be inflexible when making these placement decisions, but I want to strongly encourage families (and most particularly those families that are new to our programs) to follow the guidelines below. If you still aren’t sure, write a message to and ask!

Haynes (formerly Archimedes): Virtually all 5th and 6th graders should sign up for this level. You might have studied some Algebra (the new national math standards mention “Algebraic Thinking” from 1st grade on), but the are unlikely to have had a full high school level course by this time.

Brahmagupta: We’d like all 7th graders and many 8th graders to sign up for Brahmagupta.

Cantor: This program is meant for 9th and 10th graders enrolled in Algebra 1 or Geometry, and 8th graders that have completed or are enrolled in a high school level Algebra 1 course.

Kovalevsky (formerly DesCartes): Students in high school who have completed a high school geometry course should enroll in Kovalevsky.

Euler: You should sign up for Euler if you’ve been in Euler before or if you have completed two years in Kovalevsky/DesCartes. Our Euler level is where we think about math particularly deeply and where previous experience with math circles really helps! If you haven’t participated before and are interested, and you haven’t completed two years of Kovalevsky/DesCartes, write an email to and tell us about yourself! (Note: UChicago will have the Kovalevsky level for the first time this year!)

A note on absences: We will continue to use absences to determine who gets to automatically enroll in math circles for the following quarter. However, we are changing our policy about dropping students who miss the first session of a quarter. If you are offered a spot and can’t make the first day, email at least 48 hours before the session begins; please include your name, location, and session. If you don’t do this and we have a waitlist for that session, you will get dropped! Also, we do want students to come on time–please note that if you are more than 30 minutes late to a session, you will not be counted present that day.

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!