Chapel Hill: Opinion

The Math Circle is back – Hector Rosario

Imagine a room full of kids, working together on activities ranging from easy puzzles to research level problems. A joyful mood fills the air as children revel in their discoveries and inventions. Unbeknownst to them, they are blossoming as mathematical giants.

Stop imagining: The Chapel Hill Math Circle is back!

The Chapel Hill Math Circle, an initiative that nurtures mathematical talent from first through 12th grades, began meeting again this semester in Phillips Hall, which houses UNC’s mathematics and physics departments. During three Saturdays per month, between 120 and 150 children come together to explore new ideas and work on challenging problems with like-minded students. Handouts are posted after each session for students who miss class or anyone wanting to experience the joy of problem-solving. Although we do not screen students, we serve some of the brightest young mathematical minds in the Triangle. There is so much talent here!

Math circles have their roots in Eastern Europe. Historically, they started as informal gatherings consisting of a mathematician and a handful of high school students on a Saturday morning or weekday afternoon. They discussed challenging problems and students learned to think like mathematicians.

The first math circle in the United States was started in 1994 by Robert and Ellen Kaplan at Harvard. In 1996, the Berkeley Math Circle and the San Jose Math Circle opened in California. Twenty years later, Chapel Hill has a high-caliber program run by Linda Green, a native North Carolinian with a Ph.D. in mathematics from Princeton University, and me, a “New Carolinian” with a Ph.D. in mathematics education from Columbia University.

This initiative is offered free of charge to any student who shows interest in playing with mathematical ideas. We held our first session in January 2016 and closed our first semester in May with a Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival in the Student Union’s Great Hall. We intend to bring it back every spring as our end-of-the-year activity.

How do I register my child?

Simply visit our website and register. Although we currently have a waiting list, a few openings are expected after a few weeks of sessions.

What about local teachers who want to get involved and learn this approach to teaching mathematics?

Several local teachers serve as volunteers, and the Department of Mathematics at NCSU will officially host the Triangle Math Teachers’ Circle, just as the Department of Mathematics at UNC-CH officially hosts the Chapel Hill Math Circle.

We have also secured professional development credit for CHCCS teachers.. This initiative will welcome anybody interested in the teaching profession, at any level, with an interest in learning and practicing the pedagogical approaches of math circles as they pertain to creative problem-solving.

We will meet three times in the fall and six times in the spring semester. We are also considering rotating the meeting place between Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh. Interested parties can visit our website and join the list!

What about the achievement gap?

North Carolina has the fastest growing achievement gap in the nation in terms of income. As a concerned citizen said at the second forum on the search for the new superintendent, “achievement gap means racial gap.” A child’s race, gender, or income are not intrinsic factors in the intellectual potential of a child. Naturally, we cannot expect every child to perform at the highest intellectual levels of society; however, what we can expect is for ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status not to be factors hindering those children who strive to do so.

To accomplish this, we must create a culture that values mathematical and scientific ideas. In that connection, members of the Triangle Math Teachers’ Circle will be encouraged to open math circles at their local schools as part of their professional development and leadership activities. This will help us reach out to students from disenfranchised communities. Moreover, we have also communicated with the UNC Board of Governors and President Margaret Spellings about expanding this project across the state, using UNC campuses as hubs.

We are increasing exponentially!

Hector Rosario is center director at Mathnasium of Chapel Hill. He is the co-author of Math Makes Sense! A Constructivist Approach to the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics” and the principal editor of the anthology Mathematics and Its Teaching in the Southern Americas.