As the SF Math Circle’s current Director, I have been answering that question frequently and in many contexts. I usually start by saying something like, "Math Circle is an after school activity where students get to have fun doing novel math problems." Math Circle has for the most part fit that description for its entire duration, but has also evolved. We are in a huge transition right now, in terms of finances and in leadership. Our goals are, roughly, the same as they have ever been, but we are taking this transition period as a time to reflect, regroup, and improve.
My decisions as director are based on achieving these goals:
· Engage students in fun mathematical activities;
· Educate students in problem-solving skills;
· Expose students to novel mathematics that they may not otherwise see unless they decide to major in math;
· Encourage and provide access to students who are from economically disadvantaged homes and who might not otherwise attend.
Here is how we have been supporting these goals:
Engage students in fun mathematical activities.
Our instructors are dedicated to creating fun activities that spark students’ curiosity about mathematics. We recruit talented instructors, and we train them and give continual feedback so our instructors and volunteers can grow to be cutting edge educators.
We also support our instructors in their innovative teaching by offering a wide range of supplies, educational manipulatives, and books from our mathematical library. While there are many wonderful math topics that can be taught simply with a writing utensil and imagination, there is also a lot to be gained from manipulatives and visual tools!
Educate students in problem-solving skills.
Problem-solving skills can be applied to almost anything! We teach a very useful set of problem-solving strategies, such as thinking backwards, making tables, starting with smaller problems, and so on. This is especially helpful with school math, as problem-solving skills are important for the new Common Core Standards of Mathematical Practice. While we have not focused on test or competition preparation in the recent years, these problem-solving skills help students learn to approach and tackle any math problem with increased confidence, making it more likely for our students to be successful on tests and in competitions.
Expose students to novel mathematics that they may not otherwise see unless they decide to major in math.
There are many mathematical topics that are not taught until college which are, at their core, easily understandable by students of all ages. Our instructors introduce students to topics in topology, graph theory, knot theory, combinatorics, probability, and more! While these topics aren't taught in the same way as they would be in a college course, we believe that there is a value in exposing students to the full range of fascinating mathematics topics. Students usually experience mathematics mostly as algebra and some geometry, probability, and statistics. If they are not interested in these topics, they may feel they do not like mathematics.
However, many college students who major in math are often surprised when they learn the full scope of mathematical content! I was one of such students. Once I started taking upper-division mathematics classes, I was blown away by a whole new world of thinking. I majored in mathematics because I was good at algebra and calculus. But it turned out mathematics was much different than I expected. By exposing students to many different types of mathematics early on, we hope to attract a variety of mathematically minded students who might not otherwise pursue advanced studies of mathematics.
Encourage students who are from economically disadvantaged homes and who might not otherwise attend.
An additional goal of the San Francisco Math Circle is to reach out to students who are from economically disadvantaged homes or are under-represented minorities. While our locations have varied over the years, we always have at least one Math Circle site at a school with a large population of students in these demographics. We do this deliberately in order to facilitate attendance and to provide ease of access. We also encourage teachers from similar, nearby schools to bring students to our Math Circle locations. A large part of our success in this depends on teachers in the public schools: when we build relationships with teachers, they can help us identify students in our target demographics. We will continue to do outreach and find ways to better achieve this goal.
Where is Math Circle going?
SF Math Circle will need to restructure itself both in terms of operations and finances. Right now, we are adjusting as needed, and we appreciate your patience with us as our program slowly changes. The good news is that SF Math Circle can look forward to a long-term, stable headquarters at Proof School, where professional fundraisers will help us. SF Math Circle will still have locations across the city, but will be sheltered at Proof School.
We are committed to engaging students in novel mathematics and problem solving, with the aim of sparking a love for mathematics in a diverse body of students in San Francisco.