Stevens Math Circle Initiative
The Stevens Math Circle Initiative is an enrichment program for elementary and middle school students intended to inspire and nurture a love for mathematics, and to teach critical reasoning skills.
Math Circles expose students to mathematics that is interesting, challenging, and fun, and that goes well beyond the material covered in a typical math class. They aim to show students a different side of mathematics—one where ingenuity, creativity, collaboration, and deep learning take priority over rote memorization, routine problem-solving, and standardized assessment.
What's a Math Circle?
A Math Circle is an enrichment program for elementary and middle school students who are interested in math. At meetings, students are taught to actively explore problems and to articulate their reasoning—without being pressured, and without being handed the answer. They are encouraged to collaborate, engage in mathematical discussion, and participate in mathematical games and activities. Math Circles have a long history in Eastern Europe, where they have contributed to the early education of many prominent mathematicians and scientists, but they are relatively uncommon in the United States. We’re trying to change that.
Start a Math Circle at Your School
If you’re a teacher or school administrator interested in partnering with Stevens to create a Math Circle at your school, contact Jan Cannizzo at [email protected] for more information.
About Our Initiative
In 2017, the Department of Mathematical Sciences launched the Stevens Math Circle Initiative, working with two local public schools to start Math Circles for students in grades 3-6. Our unique approach, which entails enlisting the help of talented college and high school students to facilitate Math Circles in the classroom, allowed us to establish over a dozen Math Circles at various schools within just two years. Our goal is to give any interested school in the country—especially schools with limited resources—materials to establish their own Math Circle. This includes:
Detailed guidelines that explain how to organize and manage a Math Circle, together with a ready-to-use schedule tailored to a given school’s needs.
A full year’s worth of problem sets—each adhering to a particular mathematical theme—for students in grades 3-6.
A full year’s worth of mathematical games and activities, together with detailed instructions.
All of this content is composed by professional mathematicians at Stevens, and almost all of it requires little more than pencil, paper, and curiosity to implement.
What People Are Saying
We had an overwhelmingly positive response from the program! Thank you for all that you and your staff has done already!
Director of Innovative Programs, Hoboken Public Schools
I understand that you are the designer of the Math Circle after school program which is being offered at Wallace Elementary School this year. My son is in that class, and he tells me that it's his favorite Math class out of everything he's tried (and we've tried quite a few).
Parent of a Math Circle participant
I would like to say thank you for all of the great material that you have provided to us. It definitely kept the kids engaged, and class became a place where they wanted to spend time as opposed to last semester when everyone wanted to leave early.
Teacher at a Stevens Math Circle
I would like to start off by saying...job well done! Of all the vendors and staff, the Math Circle team has always been on top of their game. Communication, delivery of materials, and attendance has been fantastic. It has been a real pleasure working with all of you.
I wanted to take the time to say thank you for giving me this opportunity to teach Math Circles. I have taught students in the past and I am glad I was able to continue what I love. It was a pleasure working with the students. Their energy and excitement reminds me why I love teaching so much!
Undergraduate working at a Stevens Math Circle
Just a brief note of thanks for the end of the semester activity and unexpected gift of the game cards! The Set game cards were enjoyed immensely by both students and teachers!
Teacher at a Stevens Math Circle
I have been able to attend and support Math Circles the last few sessions and I am so enjoying talking with our children and getting to know how they attack and puzzle through problems.
Thank you for your help in providing interesting, challenging, and fun assignments this semester. Please convey my gratitude to all of the Stevens students who worked well with our students throughout the semester.
Teacher at a Stevens Math Circle
Frequently Asked Questions
The only prerequisite for joining a Math Circle is an interest in math, and a willingness to engage with challenging problems, games, and activities.
It may, but Math Circles are not designed to drill students with routine exercises or prepare them for standardized tests. Rather, they are designed to do something that we feel is much more important: Show students that math is beautiful, interesting, accessible, and fun, all the while encouraging deep and rigorous thinking.
We believe that it is important not to force students into joining a Math Circle if they have no desire to join. Although students who are struggling with math may benefit from participating in a Math Circle (if they are interested and want to participate), it is also important to understand that Math Circles do not provide remediation or tutoring.
We’re trying to make it as easy and inexpensive as possible for schools to establish a Math Circle. All of our guidelines, curriculum support, and content are completely free. That said, there are of course some costs associated to any Math Circle. Our Math Circles are typically set up as follows:
Math Circle meetings take place in a classroom provided by the school.
The school hires a teacher to supervise Math Circle meetings.
Qualified college or high school students are hired to help facilitate Math Circle meetings.
A ratio of one instructor for every 4-6 students is desirable. College or high school students hired to help facilitate meetings may be paid an hourly wage or receive college or high school credit for their work. The cost of running a Math Circle will vary depending on the number of meetings, the number of students enrolled, and how instructors are compensated.
It is of course desirable for Math Circle instructors to have a strong math background, but a degree in math or science is by no means a necessary qualification. The most important qualification is simply a willingness to explore mathematical problems and activities with students. A typical Stevens Math Circle is staffed by one teacher, as well as responsible high school or college students who help facilitate meetings. All of our content comes with detailed instructions and answers to exercises in order to make preparation as straightforward as possible.
Our Math Circles are flexible and can vary significantly in terms of scheduling. Some Math Circles meet for one hour twice per week over the course of the entire school year. Others meet once per week for 90 minutes over the course of the school year. Still others meet for only a couple of months during a semester. Our content can be adapted to accommodate any reasonable schedule.
True problem solving is as much about the journey as the destination. Math Circle participants are asked to challenge themselves and explain their reasoning as they ponder their way through dozens of problem sets, games, and activities—all composed by professional mathematicians at Stevens.
In a Stevens Math Circle, students are exposed to problems that touch upon a large variety of mathematical topics, including geometry, combinatorics, number theory, and logic. They play mathematical games—some single-player, some two-player, some collaborative—that are rich in strategy. And they engage in hands-on activities that allow them to explore a particular mathematical subject. The following is a small collection of sample materials intended to give a sense of the questions that Math Circle participants are asked to explore.
Take a look at the nine interlocking cogs shown here:
Is it possible for these cogs to rotate? Why or why not? What if there were ten cogs instead?
A Möbius strip is a fascinating object obtained by taking a strip of paper, giving it a half-twist, and gluing its ends together:
What happens if you cut a Möbius strip along a line drawn halfway between its edges? What do you think happens if you cut it along a line drawn one third of the way between its edges? Can you answer these questions without actually cutting the Möbius strip?
In two years, my little brother will be twice as old as he was two years ago. In three years, my little sister will be three times as old as she was three years ago. Which of them is older?
Place a coin on a tabletop, and place another coin of the same size next to it. Now roll the second coin around the first one without slipping. How many turns does the second coin make after it goes all the way around?
Be sure to conduct an experiment! How can you explain the result?
In the game Bridge It, Math Circle participants take turns creating continuous, nonintersecting paths—one from left to right along the black dots, another from top to bottom along the white dots:
The first player to bridge opposite sides of the playing field wins. Is it possible for this game to end in a draw?
The Stevens Math Circle Initiative is partially supported by grants from the Mathematical Association of America and from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.