The Yellowknife Math Circle is a free program which aims to provide interested students with a space to collaborate, to experiment, and to set their own research agendas as junior mathematicians.
Two circles ran during the 2016-2017 school year on alternating Wednesday evenings at Aurora College:
- For students in grades 5 and 6, the Babbage - Lovelace circle
- For students in grades 7 and 8, the Ramanujan - Hardy circle
We expect to return with similar offerings during the 2017-2018 school year.
What’s a math circle?
‘Math circles’ originated in Russia and Eastern Europe through the early 1900s, spreading to North America in the 90s. Practices and goals differ from circle to circle, but the uniting theme is that circles make students the drivers of their own understanding by presenting them with open-ended problems or situations whose exploration leads to significant mathematical ideas.
Faced with these problems, with necessity being the mother of invention, students adapt for themselves a number of techniques from areas of ‘higher mathematics’ such as graph theory, combinatorics, and game theory. Along the way, they’ll have a lot of fun and engage in spirited debate about how to make sense of things and move forward.
Is this an “acceleration” program? What sort of student is a good candidate?
Sessions largely sidestep the K-12 curriculum, instead providing students with puzzles, games, and problems whose resolutions require creative use of mathematical skills that they already have.
The sessions are designed to be challenging for all students, including the strongest. But they are also designed to be accessible - no special degree of skill with school mathematics is required. Good candidates can be characterized by:
- curiosity - being unsatisfied with partial understanding
- bravery - willingness to follow through on uncertain ideas
- an argumentative streak
- a sense of delight at resolving complicated situations
Students who have an unsteady relationship with math but are well described by the above should definitely consider attending!
Extra-curricular math? For fun? Are you nuts?
I know, I know. We have this ‘complicated’ relationship with math. It’s valuable - there’s a sense that complex mathematical processes keep our satellites in orbit, that scientific and social research rely on mathematical analysis, etc. But our individual experiences with mathematics tend to be as an arbitrary barrier (what does calculus have to do with my B.A.?) and as a bizarre instrument for generating status orderings among students. For many, the word ‘mathematics’ itself triggers an anxious response.
At the same time, there’s a community that considers mathematics as an art, as a boundless creative medium. Circles serve as an initiation into this community by providing a casual, positive atmosphere where students can self-direct and surprise themselves with creative solutions to problems which seemed impossible to crack.
In short: Try it. You’ll like it.
What’s with the names of the circles?
Our collective understanding of progress in science and mathematics is colored with the idea of the solitary genius who overcomes the misunderstandings or technical limitations of their time (take Einstein as an example). This is, in part, a practical simplification - the ‘whole story’ of any piece of scientific or mathematical progress would be difficult to tell. Better to have the story of Einstein than no story at all of the emergence of modern physics.
It’s also a damaging simplification. First, it obscures the collaborative processes that give rise to breakthrough ideas, which leads us to de-emphasize communication and collaboration in solving our own problems. Second, it paints a picture of progress where only the superhuman efforts of our best and brightest have any effect, which creates a powerful incentive for the rest of us to disengage, limiting our individual potential and weakening the community of learners which progress depends upon.
To resist these ideas, and to emphasize that mathematics is a social enterprise, each circle is named for a great mathematical collaboration. Students in each group will learn a little throughout the year about the nature of these collaborations.