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Growing Minds: Local Kids Embrace Math Challenges at AU

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Math professor Jaime Miller with two students in front of a white board with math problems.
Senior Professorial Lecturer Jaime Miller with two student-participants of DC Math Circle.

If 7th grade math was a slog for you, imagine kids that age doing math in their spare time. But don’t tell kids attending DC Math Circle that math isn’t fun, as they’ve embraced the extracurricular enrichment classes in American University’s new Don Myers Technology and Innovation Building. Last semester, they started attending the weekly program, an informal space where they partake in mathematical challenges, games, and discussions.

What’s also impressive is the commitment from AU mathematics and statistics faculty, who are already busy with their own work and classes. Jeffrey Adler, Jaime Miller, and Kenneth Ward run the program, doing administrative work, leading the occasional session, and tapping other AU professors for assistance.

These math professors marvel at the students’ enthusiasm, and they say it’s worth putting in the extra time.

“Some of these kids know a lot. They just want to keep going and going. They’ve already been at school all day,” says Miller. “And they’ll come, and they still just have the energy at the end of each session to say, ‘Oh man, we’re done?’”

A Full Circle

Spurred by local parental interest, the DC Math Circle is for Washington-area kids between 5th and 8th grade. Every week, session leaders try to open the discussion with a lighthearted exercise. Yet Adler believes math can always be fun, and, even if a problem doesn’t have real-world applications, it can be worth doing.

“We’re not trying to make it fun. We’re just trying to present it as it is,” Adler says. “And we’re freed of the constraints of the curriculum. We’re not trying to prepare them for any particular test.”

The DC Math Circle has proved a hit. Each semester, sessions have filled up almost immediately, and the AU professors capped the program at 40 students.

“We have more than we can handle. So now we have a waitlist,” says Adler. “We could hold sessions in two rooms, or meet two nights a week, or meet in two different locations. But then everything becomes much more complicated. That would be great to do, eventually, but we’re not prepared for that right now.”

Teaching and Talking Pizza

Other AU faculty members and students have contributed, including Michael Keynes, associate dean of graduate studies, and math faculty members Maria Barouti, Rory Conboye, Donna Dietz, and Jeffrey Hakim.

As a junior double major in mathematics and secondary education, Mercy Griffith is studying to become a math teacher. In fall 2017, she attended every session as a volunteer assistant. While working with kids on tricky math problems, she benefited as both a teacher and a student.

“On many occasions, the students and I were in the same boat—participating in the activities, offering up conjectures, and proposing solutions to each problem,” she writes in an email. “I think it is important to be constantly learning from students and trying to understand their perspectives on education and beyond. Math Circle gave me an opportunity to engage with and learn from students in the DC area. Many people might assume that I was helping students learn math, but I see Math Circle as a place where I was the student, learning from each and every participant.”

Adler and Ward recalled how, being closer in age, Griffith could better relate to the participants. One day, the kids were unusually energetic, and Griffith loosened things up with a “telephone” game of whispering.

“It started with ‘I love mathematics.’ And as we reached the end it was like, ‘Ice cream pizza,’ or something. We went through all 40 of the kids. And because they’re 5th and 6th grade, everything becomes food,” Ward humorously recalls.

Another time, it looked like they’d even pass on candy to attend DC Math Circle. For Adler, this illuminated their level of dedication.

“The week before Halloween, at the end of the session, I’m reminding everyone we’re not meeting next week,” Adler recounts. “Some kids are saying, ‘Why not? We can have a Halloween lesson!’”

DC Math Circle enables kids to connect—on a deeper intellectual level—with people their own age. “I have the sense that they might not have, in their home institutions, fellow students who they can socialize with in this way. And this gives them a space where they can do that,” Ward says.

There are other revealing anecdotes about the strides being made. “We had a student who said to her parent after one of our sessions that she could feel her mind growing. She could feel her brain growing,” says Ward.

Girls, STEM, and Welcoming Everybody

Jaime Miller, a senior professorial lecturer, has separate master’s degrees in mathematics and education, and she student taught elementary school students in Virginia.

“It’s great getting to work with the kids and presenting math to them. It’s really college-level math, some of the stuff that we do, but in a way that they can understand,” she says.

In an interview, she explained how DC Math Circle gets students thinking on a higher level. She led a session using perfect square numbers, and finding patterns that exist when you add certain pairs of numbers together.

“Some of them would start trying to add all these big numbers together. And we were sort of trying to get them to look for the patterns,” she says. “They’re used to just doing computations or memorizing things. Whereas this is more of a thinking process. Like, ‘How should we approach a problem? How should we think about it?’ And maybe look for shortcuts.”

For Miller, it’s refreshing that half the students signed up for DC Math Circle are girls. “Working in this field, we’re very underrepresented. And it’s nice to see a lot of these girls, at a young age, showing an interest in math.”

That said, AU professors would like to reach more low-income and underserved populations in DC. There are obstacles, they note, including the cost of transportation to and from AU. Participation in DC Math Circle is free, though a $100 donation is suggested for support of administrative costs. But, as Miller notes, the only requirement is that they want to be there.

Engaging the Community

AU profs say this program makes them feel part of the city. “It’s about introducing mathematics, but it’s also about community. I’m interested in building community, not only with the neighborhood locally, but also with each other. With my students in the college and with my colleagues,” says Ward.

Griffith, who is studying this semester in Budapest, loved developing relationships with the students.

“I looked forward to seeing them every Tuesday,” she writes. “It was awesome to see so many kids in one place—each with their own unique interests and backgrounds—connected by a love for math.”