OCMC Volunteers Attend the 2011 Circle on the Road Event

By Alex Zivkovic, University High School, Class of 2013

Flying in to Houston, Andrew and I felt the warm, moist air that is uncommon to us here in Orange County. While the climate is essentially irrelevant to the rest of our trip, it did contribute to the sense that we were not in our typical element and that this trip was special.

This trip to Houston was taken so that our math circle can be represented on the national stage at the annual Circle on the Road event. Hosted by MSRI, from whom we have received a grant this past year, this event brings together math circles from all over the nation for a weekend of presentations, mock-workshops, and discussions about how math circles are run. The meeting is part of a greater plan to connect all of the math circles in the nation and establish a national discussion to facilitate math knowledge and exploration.

The focus of the first day was a discussion comparing and contrasting different math circle methods. This panel included leaders of both student and teacher math circles, so the members had insight into all facets of math circle life. The general consensus was that while math circles can provide preparation for specific competitions, there also has to be the element of teaching for the sake of math so that the circle can be successful. The speakers believed that it is not enough to focus on competitions, because a love of math must be fostered through math exploration activities, not just memorization and contest preparation.

Following this lively discussion about the essence of math circles came a sample math circle session by Tatiana Shubin. Challenging all of us in the room with her exploration of chromatic numbers, Mrs. Shubin demonstrated for all of us the power that math has. While we were stumped by many of the questions (we will admit that several of the question she posed remained unanswered by the members of our table), we still pursued them and tried different approaches to explore the concept. Her lesson summed up what the panel before her had concluded: if a math circle can pose complicated questions and instill a sense of passion for math in its students, then it will ultimately be successful.

Having seen a nearly flawless math circle presentation, we then split into our groups to prepare for the following day’s math festival where we ourselves would be giving math circle presentations. Several weeks before the conference, all of the attending participants of the Circle on the Road were asked to sign up for a specific workshop that would be held on Saturday evening as part of the Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival. Andrew Ma selected to participate in a workshop entitled “Pythagorean Fractals,” while my assistance went to “The Great Popcorn Prank.” Each of the different math activities were held for three sessions that Saturday. The math topics ranged from subjects suitable for primary school students to concepts never taught in high school and often not even in college. This event provided a perfect menu of interesting concepts for local students, teachers, and even parents to pursue.

After this wildly successful day, a banquet was held for the workshop volunteers to congratulate us for a job well done. Instead of resting however, the conversation at all of the tables was focused on math. Not just math itself, but discussions on ways to improve the sessions, ways to reach more students in our local areas, as well as ways to share information amongst the different math circles separated by vast distances.

A key element of our daily discussions was in fact the need for more communication between math circles. It seemed ludicrous to us that each of us can come up with the same lesson plan and not be able to share the files to save time. And upon seeing some of the ideas of the Sunday morning presenters, many of us grew jealous that we were not aware of the brilliant ideas created by other math circle leaders! All of us became aware that the entire math circle experience would be enhanced if only we could receive feedback from others and share the brilliant fun activities that we collectively come up with.

In fact, the focus of this entire conference can be surmised by that simple idea. A national network must be created between all math circles, and in many ways this 2nd Annual Circle of the Road made large strides toward that goal. Genius presentations about alternative reality games and workshops involving inflatable balloons and other junk to model mathematical concepts were all presented that morning. These presentations only added pressure to the need for all of us to establish connection with one another. Later that day, forums and websites available for the sharing of math circle ideas were shown to the event participants which drew a large sigh of relief. These, we all hope, will connect us forever so that a national system of communications between the far-flung math circles will finally become an implemented practice.

A short break followed, and our presentation loomed. We had been invited to present about the methods and structure that we here at OCMC implement. As a student organized math circle, we were unique in the sense that we rely on high school and middle school students to volunteer and sustain our programs. Starting with the history of the math circle, we then proceeded to cover our first two years and the tremendous help that all of our volunteers provide whenever we need it. Since we run several programs servicing students in our area, we highlighted each of them briefly. First we discussed our tournaments, then the AMC 8 and Mathcounts preparation seminars, and lastly the newly founded Santa Ana Math Club. The organizers of the Circle on the Road event were particularly curious about the logistics of running this math circle as students, so we also highlighted our publicity and fundraising strategies.

Concluding our presentation, Johnny and I unveiled our latest goals for the organization. Apart from expanding current programs already in place, our newest vision is to enact math teams in local schools that do not have them. With the vast network of over 40 volunteers we now have, we would be able to coach each of these teams with a centralized curriculum. Up until now we have held tournaments that allowed students without school math clubs to participate, but now, we wish to extend this accessibility to math one step further. Next year, we plan to begin a policy of bringing new schools into regionally- and nationally-recognized math competitions such as the Orange County Math Field Day event and Mathcounts tournaments by sending volunteers to local schools to found and coach math teams.

With the help and support of MSRI and the math circles with whom we have now established connections, we are confident that in the years ahead we will be able to not only continue supporting local math culture, but also improve the quality of our work in the region.

Our presentation is available here: OCMC Presentation.

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