Thursday, April 4, 2013

Doing justice to describing the work of other math circles that have inspired us

Last week, Sol Lederman interviewed Gili Rusak and myself for a podcast now featured on his blog, Wild About Math.   Thanks to Catherine Miller for typing up a transcript of that conversation, which will soon be available in a link on Sol's blogpost.  Reading that transcript of an informal live unrehearsed and unscripted conversation was certainly humbling and subsequent reflection made me realize that there are things I need to clarify.  There were so many things that I wish I had said, inspiring people who have massively contributed to our math circle I wish I had named or things I had said a bit more clearly.  In one case, what came out of my mouth (when I was talking about "ends and means") was totally the opposite of what I intended to say and changed the meaning entirely.   So I have added annotation in brackets to the transcript, and I have also provided links.

It was a fun experience talking to Sol, who is clearly a kindred spirit, an amateur math-lover like the two of us who shares our passion for promoting math communities where people enjoy celebrating mistakes and sharing Aha! experiences as they explore challenging problems together.  We touched on many subjects and definitely did not have time to do justice to all of them in an hour-long informal conversation.

I want to acknowledge here in this  blog an important distinction which we did not make in the podcast and which I have also neglected to make in the past in this blog, and which Ken Fan, the mathematician who directs Girls' Angle, and invented the treasure hunt concept, has called to our attention and asked that we clarify.  There is a good deal of difference between SUMiT, the original treasure hunt created by Girls' Angle and the small local treasure hunts in Schenectady inspired by it.  We have not described the extremely rich complexity of the far more elaborate original SUMiT event Gili attended.  Although Ken has asked that SUMiT participants not disclose the full details of that experience (in order not to spoil the story line for future participants), he would like to clarify that the original event is far more complex with several stages, and the crossword element described by Gili in the podcast was only one of those stages.  Ken has told me that thousands of hours of work have gone into creating and developing the SUMiT event.  Prizes given to all participants included stereo speakers, a backpack, a set of Zometools, a Tetraxis puzzle from KO Sticks, candy, and a copy of Maria Dzielska's book Hypatia of Alexandra.

In the podcast, we also talked about some of the other mathematical circle communities which have inspired us and which are run by full-time professional mathematicians who dedicate their lives to creating mathematics and mathematical communities, but again I feel I did not do them adequate justice in giving them the credit they deserve for the inspiration they have provided to our math circle.  I am in awe of them and have long and fervently wished that our own local community had such dedicated fulltime professional mathematicians leading a local math circle as Harold Reiter from the Charlotte Math ClubBob and Ellen Kaplan from the Boston Math Circle, Zvezda Stankova from the Berkeley Math Circle, Tatiana Shubin from the San Jose Math Circle, Paul Zeitz and Brandy Weigers from the San Francisco Math Circle,  Joshua Zucker from the MSRI Julia Robinson Math Festivals, Amanda Serenevy from the Riverbend Community Math Center, Ken Fan from Girls' Angle, or Japheth Wood from the NYC Math Circle and Bard Math Circle.

I also wish that I had encountered such people and communities when I was a student myself.  I missed out on a lot of joy as a result when I was young.  I never dreamed that math would be fun to do as a student or that it would be fun to do with other people rather than as a solitary pursuit.  Indeed, when I was Gili's age, math was my weakest subject and I remember feeling quite lost and confused in my 10th grade geometry class (a much less advanced math class than she is taking.  Like a number of our math circle students, Gili is already taking advanced college math courses.)  It was only later when my younger brother and sister--out of desperation and having nobody else to turn to as they were entering a new high school where they did not want to be behind the other students--started asking for my help in learning mathematics that I began to get an inkling that it could actually be fun to figure out how to work together with them to try to find answers for their questions and to share my own (generally half-baked) insights.  In some sense, we are still doing that in our math circle all these years later.

I also want to make clear that--in default of such folks living in our midst--our Albany Area Math Circle activities are all led by adult and student volunteers, amateurs who do not have the mathematical sophistication of full-time professional mathematicians who have spent their lives immersed in mathematics.   While we have benefited from the countless wonderful ideas generously shared by professional mathematician math circle leaders and especially the facilitation of MSRI National Association of Math Circles in providing opportunities for them to share their ideas with us, we have no illusions that the depth of our mathematical understanding of all the nuances of the problems we investigate is anything like theirs or that we are able to describe them fully, but we do encourage others not to give up altogether if they also find themselves in a community lacking such dedicated professionals.

I encourage all our members as well as readers of this blog thinking about starting their own local math communities to go directly to the source--and also to support the math circles led by professionals  whose work you admire by considering purchasing some of the MSRI Math Circle book series, Bob and Ellen Kaplan's books, subscribing to the Girls' Angle Bulletin, participating in a future SUMiT, and/or just making a donation directly to any of these circles that has provided ideas you have especially enjoyed.   These worthy organizations typically operate on very fragile financing and deserve your support.  The end of the school year will soon be upon us, and I know that many math teachers would be delighted to receive such a book, a subscription, and/or a thoughtful donation made in their honor rather than the usual end-of-year thank you teacher gifts like candy or toiletries.   It's a gift that will keep on giving for many years to come as your teachers' future students will benefit in many ways. You can also help support these generous professional math circle leaders by suggesting to your friendly local librarian that the library consider purchasing or subscribing to their publications.


Sue VanHattum said...

Mary, I think you are too humble. Your understanding of mathematics is deep enough to help you choose well the activities and problems to use in your circle. And you bring something priceless along with it - your understanding of how to help a group grow and thrive.

Sol said...

An addendum pointing to this article and a link to your transcript is here: