The Portland Math Circle

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is a Math Circle? 

A: Math circles are math enrichment programs for school students. The "Math Circle" term has its origins in Russia and Eastern Europe. Math Circles are weekly get-togethers where math-interested students from schools work on fun and challenging math problems guided by math professionals. Currently there are several very successful math circles in the U.S. which are run in a wide variety of styles.

There are many different styles of math circles. Here is a description of our vision for the 6th and 7th grade math circle.  It is a place for children who love math to learn about some of the deeper concepts of math. It is different from most classrooms: the teacher does much less lecturing, a few minutes or maybe none, and the kids are much more responsible for the path to the solution. 

 A question, perhaps ill formed, is posed that should lead to a major insight and many minor insights. (An ill formed question lets the kids learn that real problems don’t come in the kind of neat packages that classroom problems usually come in.) Then the teacher stands back as much as possible and lets the kids discover the answer. Or, as Bob Kaplan,, says, the teacher poses a question and lets “congenial conversation take over”.  So, along the way, the kids will learn how to hold this conversation.  They can ask questions and make statements without raising their hand but they might need to learn not to interrupt.

The goal is to have the children take charge of the discovery of the answer. Along the way, they should get getter at clarifying what the question or questions are, experience frustration and learn that work will get you past it, have fun, and discover something new about math.  Depending on the question, this can take from half an hour to ten 90 minute sessions.   

Q: What are the age/grade level recommendations?

A: 6th and 7th grade students who love math. Advanced math students that are younger are welcome to try a class.

Q: Why am I required to sign up for the series and not for a few of them?

A: There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that it takes time and a consistent group for the ability to develop the congenial conversation skills. Another is that there may be sessions that build from a previous session.

Q: Will I be expected to complete all the problems given to us at each session? Will there be homework?

A: NO! There is no homework and you will not be expected to complete or even attempt all the problems. At each session, we will try to provide many problems of varying levels of difficulty so as to interest and suit all participants. You will work on the problems that interest you and at your own pace, and thus you will get as far as is just right for you! We believe the time and effort you spend thinking about a math problem matters more than how many problems you have solved.

Q: How do I know if this Math Circle is the right opportunity for me?

A: You will not know the answer to that question until you have attended several sessions! Math Circle is designed for students who have a deep interest in mathematics and are eager to explore advanced math ideas and topics not generally seen in the school curriculum.

Q: I am enjoying the Math Circle sessions, but I do not quite understand everything at each session. Should I keep coming?

A: You are strongly encouraged to come to each session if you are indeed enjoying the learning experience! It takes lots and lots of practice, exposure and experience to become a skilled problem solver. Hence, do not expect to understand everything at each session since topics in a Math Circle are often unfamiliar and challenging to the participants.