Sunday, May 6, 2012

Guerrilla Math Circles brainstorming

Dan Zaharapol, the founding director of the extremely awesome Summer Program in Mathematical Problem Solving (SPMPS), has been blogging about low-cost high impact ideas to spread math opportunity.

Now, if you don't already know about Dan's program, you should definitely check it out, especially the link to the nice New York Times article covering the program, A Sleepaway Camp where Math is the Main Sport.

But, as Dan acknowledges in his post, although the program is terrific and serves a historically very underserved population (inner city middle school students), its reach is very small due to the expense and logistics involved in running a residential summer program.  The program started with 20 students last summer and--after a major fundraising effort led by its sponsors at Art of Problem Solving, the program will double in size to 40 students this summer.

And even if there were funds to serve every middle schooler, the problem is that we need outreach to children long before they reach middle school age, long before they are ready to head off to a residential summer program.

And, as Dan writes:

Too many students are ready to do more mathematics but 
  • do not know where to do it, and
  • do not even know that such opportunities exist or that they should be doing it. 
The students don’t know; their parents don’t know; their teachers don’t know. They have no way to discover that their peers, successful math students from other communities, do more than just what they see in school. 
It’s not just that they need to be told about it; it needs to be part of their culture. It’s not just that they must know that such programs exist and that successful people do them; they should feel it is expected of them, that lots of people they’ve known and admired do math beyond school. 
How can we possibly create this culture and community where it does not already exist?
This is exactly the same problem that I have been thinking about for years, but three weeks ago at the Julia Robinson Math Festival, a brainstorm hit me, which I have been calling Guerrilla Math Circles.

What do I mean by Guerrilla Math Circles?  The idea for the name comes from guerrilla marketing, which in turn originated with guerrilla warfare.  It is all about low-cost, informal, unconventional, low overhead, and non-bureaucratic approaches.  It is all done on a shoestring, small scale, but very easy to replicate, emulate, and improve by trial and error and sharing on blogs, videos, and social media.

How do Guerrilla Math Circles happen?

Guerrilla Math Circles do not involve signing kids up for anything.  They do not involve any kind of custodial responsibility for the children--because they happen in places and times where and when children are already with their parents or caretakers.   They do not require parents to take their children to any particular special places where they would not already be going.

Basically, the guiding principal of Guerrilla Math Circles is we bring the same kind of fun engaging low-cost activities done at Julia Robinson Math Festivals to places where the children who need them most already are.  And we do it on a shoestring, including elements of math as performance art on the street and math as theatrical improv or maybe even flashmobs.  They are low-tech and high touch, person-to-person and interactive.

Remember Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence and how he convinced all his friends that this would be a fun thing to do?  That's kind of the spirit of Guerrilla Math Circles.  Start doing some interesting math in  a highly visible public place in a way that invites others to join in.

Another inspiration for Guerrilla Math Circles comes from the long-time example of chess outreach programs in public parks and other public spaces.  In our area, the local chess club sponsors a "Chess under the Marquee" program under the marquee of Proctor's Theater in downtown Schenectady.  The marquee provides shelter from sun and rain and the broad sidewalk provides space to set up tables for drop-in folks to engage in pickup chess games.  Why not ask Proctor's if we can have "Math under the Marquee" at another time or day?

My head is virtually exploding with ideas--they come to me faster than I have had time to organize them all, so I will just use this post to add them as I have time to do so.

Where can Guerrilla Math Circles happen?

urban playgrounds
urban parks, especially those that serve free lunches in the summer
urban swimming pools
urban street festivals
urban farmer's markets

urban daycare programs
urban libraries

waiting rooms at social services agencies (where parents often may have bored children in tow, and would be happy to have them entertained while they wait)

urban bus stops (where parents may also be stuck waiting with bored children in tow)

Places where children are with their parents are especially good, because we have the opportunity to get parents as well as children engaged!

What can happen at a Guerrilla Math Circle?

Use simple materials (paper, yarn, beads) to make beautiful polyhedra using the ideas from Geometric Delights.   Or use balloons and these ideas from Vi Hart's blog.

Introduce kids to the unsolved "Million Dollar Math Problems" at, these typically require only simple materials like sidewalk chalk or dice.  (Two of the million dollar math problems have special local resonance for our neck of the woods.  A mathpickle problem accessible to 7 or 8-year olds introduces the ideas behind the Graceful Tree Conjecture, which is related to our own Professor Krishnamoorthy's research.  I'll be blogging about this soon.  Another mathpickle game accessible to slightly older children introduces them to the ideas behind the RSA algorithm.   Ron Rivest, the "R" in RSA, attended a local high school, located in the affluent and highly educated suburban town where our math circle holds its weekly meetings.  A number of our current math circle students come from that town, and other students in our math circle come from affluent and highly educated towns up to 45 minutes or an hour away at rush hour. But just ten minutes away from our regular meeting place at Ron Rivest's old high school are desperately poor neighborhoods, filled with children whose parents have limited and largely negative experiences with formal education, neighborhoods which have never sent a single student to our math circle--and those are the students who most need our outreach efforts!)

Share/read aloud mathematical picture books like Anno's Mysterious Multiplying Jar or Melisande or The King's Chessboard or Powers of Ten.  Use simple props to draw kids into acting out the roles.

Tell stories about famous mathematicians (like Archimedes and the bathtub or Gauss and the evil Prussian schoolmaster--admit they might be aprocryphal but there is math involved!) or read mathematical poetry (Theoni Pappas' Math Talk: mathematical ideas in poems for two voices is great fun!) or sing mathematical songs (like these from Tom Lehrer) or get children acting out little skits involving logic problems like this.

Give a child a large sheet of newspaper and challenge the child to see how many times they can fold it in half--then talk about powers of two and why it is so hard to fold with regular paper.  (Until ten years ago, it was thought to be impossible to fold more than seven times, but then a high school student in California managed to surprise everyone by getting to 12 folds, and just last year a group of Massachusetts high school students and their advisor set a new record at 13 folds, but they had to use over half a mile of very thin toilet paper.)   Then, get them thinking about an allowance that starts at a penny a week--and doubles every week.   Supposing their dad is Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, how long before their allowance bankrupts him?  (Give them a long strip of adding machine tape and a pencil and get them to start doubling.  This is also fun to do with sidewalk chalk.)

Speaking of pennies, you could start a kid flipping pennies and charting strings of heads and tails and finding patterns.  Or casting dice and charting totals and discovering that not all totals come up equally often (and figuring out why that's true--and some of the implications for which properties are the best investments in Monopoly, along the lines here.)   You could also teach kids how to play a fun game called Prime Number Monopoly or HangMath.  (Hmm, and we could actually talk about the mathematics of lottery probabilities right in the shadow of the New York State lottery headquarters, which are located in downtown Schenectady!)

Who can make guerrilla math circles happen?

anyone with a love of recreational mathematics and a willingness to share it!   That would be all kinds of folks--for starters, the students in formal math circle programs like ours, college and high school math clubs, their friends, supporters, and advisors.

Okay--enough.  It is a beautiful spring day and the Schenectady Green Market has finally moved outdoors!  It is calling my name so I can scope it out for possibilities for our Guerrilla Math Circle initiatives.  Here is a video created by a Union College student that captures a little of the vibrant spirit of the Schenectady Green Market atmosphere and suggests why it might be a good place for guerrilla math circle activities:

More later about the details!


DanZ said...

I love this idea! Now how do we get people to do it? Is the right organizational method a website where people can post upcoming Guerilla Math Circles they're doing? Should there be some sort of recruitment/training initiative, and then a mailing list where someone can say "I'm going to do this at this park on Saturday, who wants to come?"

Japheth Wood said...

One thing along these lines that we've done at the Bard Math Festival is to have a booth at a local summer harvest festival. It's not quite the same as jumping out at grabbing people to do math, but did add a mathematical flavor to a county fair, and was very well-received. I'd love to do this more!

Y said...

This is such a delightful thing! I love the idea that math culture -- from recreational problem solving to reading about math -- might be spread so organically. I can't wait to read more about your guerilla math circle adventures.

David said...

I think this is a fantastic idea! I wonder who I can get on board to help me try this out at my local park...