Math education comes full circle for gifted middle schoolers

Photo of Math Circle studentsLocal school children who are interested in mathematics and in indulging their passion for numbers in the company of like minds now have a new outlet, the Texas A&M University Math Circle.

The increasingly popular weekly forum, hosted from 3 to 5 p.m. most Saturdays on the Texas A&M campus, offers area students in grades 5-8 the opportunity to meet other young mathematicians and to explore mathematical concepts under the direction of Texas A&M faculty and students.

Organizers say the program -- a joint project of the Department of Mathematics and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering -- is modeled specifically for mathematically gifted students and is intended as an alternative to traditional math clubs and public-school programs. Roughly 40 students show up each week to take advantage of the congenial setting for students to engage their skills and interact with college-level educators.

"In my opinion, public schools tend to spend a lot of time on the average student," said Dr. Philip Yasskin, associate professor of mathematics and a co-director of Texas A&M Math Circle. "Programs need to be provided at the gifted end as well, because it's the gifted end that's going to do the inventing, the researching and the discovering."

Yasskin organized the program along with fellow professor of mathematics Dr. Frank Sottile and associate professor of electrical and computer engineering Dr. Alex Sprintson. The trio implemented an array of lesson plans for each week's theme that are designed to encourage reasoning and understanding of mathematical concepts in an innovative and exciting manner.

In addition to presentations and demonstrations, a number of thought-provoking games and activities with mathematical overtones are featured. In one example, Magic Squares, students must arrange numbers in a square array so that the sum of every row and column is the same number. The Tower of Hanoi, another mathematical puzzle involving moving a set of discs over three pegs from left to right with the least amount of moves possible, provides a lesson in recursion.

"Any given week involves in-depth exploration of topics, such as the nature of space or of geometry in three and four dimensions," Sottile said. "We also use hands-on building of models and games to illustrate concepts or as a way to discover new ideas."

While helping students achieve the correct answer to a problem is still a priority, Yasskin says making sure they grasp the rationale is the ultimate goal.

"Math circles are not designed to figure out how to compute the next step, but we look at processes of repeated examples so we can see commonalities and logically think about why something is occurring," Yasskin added.

While Texas A&M Math Circle is a first for the university, Yasskin says the concept is hardly new. The roots of so-called "math circles" can be traced back to Russia and Eastern Europe in the 1930s with the premise of bringing sophisticated mathematical ideas to secondary school students. Immigrants from those regions who worked their way into academic positions in the United States began using the custom in their institutions and communities. The format of these early math circles was reflective of the Russian education system, which emphasized problem-solving rather than standard textbook material. By the 1990s, math circles in some form or another -- whether contests or school-based programs -- were on the rise.

Today, the National Association of Math Circles, sponsored by the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley, Calif., is the support structure for numerous math circles across the nation as they continue to grow and evolve in the 21st century. Math circles can be found for students ranging from pre-school age all the way through college. In fact, there are even math circles for teachers intended to support them in their efforts with their students by exposing them to more advanced topics or to additional background on the topics they teach.

"I think that the premise of math circles in the U.S. is to get professional mathematicians involved with excellent middle school children," Sottile said. "Most of us had years of stultifying boredom and isolation in school, and the purpose of math circles is to connect with those who need this type of stimulation which cannot be met in an ordinary school setting."

Texas A&M Math Circle began last fall as a spin-off from the math department's two-week program, Summer Educational Enrichment (SEE) in Math Program. After a six-session trial run at College Station's Oakwood Intermediate School garnered a favorable response, the decision was made to bring the program to campus to make it accessible to even more children.

"Our measure of success would be greater awareness and interest among gifted middle school students in STEM disciplines -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics," Sprintson said. "We hope to ensure a sustainable effort spanning many years by involving a broad range of faculty, graduate students and postdocs in the Colleges of Science and Engineering. We expect our current circlers to give back by volunteering to run activities and giving guest lectures after they graduate from the circle."

A longtime advocate of math outreach programs, Sottile believes programs like Texas A&M Math Circle are a vital for healthy university-community relations.

"We have several missions at Texas A&M -- it's not just teaching the undergraduates and embarking on research," Sottile said. "Part of our job as academics is to locate and nurture talent. Outreach into the community and helping education is really important."

Texas A&M Math Circle is tentatively scheduled to meet most Saturdays from 3 to 5 p.m. on the first floor of the John R. Blocker Building.

For more information, including an upcoming schedule, visit



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