Math is a flat Circle

There are few things that bruise your professional ego more than no one showing up to an event you painstakingly and excitedly planned. In my case, it all came crashing down in early October. I had been planning to start a local Math Circle since February, and even got a generous grant from the Harward Center here at Bates to do it. I had connected with local teachers, advertised in a couple of school events, and sent out numerous email announcements in the weeks leading up to the event. On the day of our first meeting, our invited speaker, four student helpers, myself, and ONE student from the Lewiston High School showed up. I canceled the event (fortunately, the student’s parents were still nearby), and went home to mope and despair about how terrible I am at everything. After an appropriate mourning period and lots of comfort food (basically the rest of that weekend), I decided to pick myself up and figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. I know you are all worried now, but don’t be, this story has a happy ending.

I must point out, I was not new to Math Circles. While in graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, I ran the Saturday Morning Math Group for a year, to great success I might add. I thought the main challenge would be to find the money to host it (but as mentioned, the Harward Center was very happy to give me some), and to a lesser extent getting people to come. Of course, when I ran SMMG (“smig” to those in the know), I basically fell into an outreach program with a long history and a built-in, solid network. I knew getting people here was going to be a challenge, but like I mentioned, I thought I did all the right things. You get buy-in from the teachers, and the students will follow. Or so I thought.

And thus we arrived at the first meeting. I was trying to keep my expectations low, but I had no idea that essentially no one was going to come. I even got emails from teachers saying that their students were coming! I think a huge miscalculation on my part was thinking that it is easy to get to the Bates campus. If students live a bit far away, and their parents work on the weekend (which many of our local parents do), how are they going to get to the college? Will they even want to wander in here on their own? Campus can be a scary place for a teenager! I had not thought about any of these potential problems, and of course I kicked myself for it for days after the event.

But you also have that voice in your head saying: “are people just not interested? did I not promote this enough?” So I met with people from the Harward Center who know much more about the local culture, and have run other successful outreach programs. One thing that was clear from our conversation was that my posters were a little scary (too mathy, not friendly enough). They fixed that by making cool flyers with encouraging language (“Love math? Then this is for you! Afraid of math? Then THIS IS FOR YOU!”). We also blitzed the local middle schools and high schools with emails (I got a LOT more emails from teachers saying they would bring their students). And I advertised it to the Bates faculty and staff.

For take two of the Math Circle, we had about twenty students (all middle school, I unfortunately scheduled this during SATs), some parents and some teachers. I noticed right away that it was incredibly important that the teachers brought the students. I think for next semester, I may offer a transportation service (Bates has vans that faculty and students can borrow, and so we could pick up students that are interested in coming but can’t get here on their own or with their parents or teachers).

Katharine Ott (standing) leads the group through the "Four Numbers Game".

Katharine Ott (standing) leads the group through the “Four Numbers Game”.

At any rate, compared to the first meeting, this was a resounding success! I learned many lessons about what assumptions not to make, how to promote events to the community, and most importantly, in the words of Winston Churchill, to “never, never, never give up.”

So, dear readers, do any of you have experience organizing these kinds of events? Any other advice for those of us who are starting brand new outreach programs in our community? Any thoughts on increasing participation and making the events more attractive to students and teachers? Please share in the comments section below.

Note: I also applied for a grant from the National Association of Math Circles, but it looks like they don’t do grants anymore (I never heard back). I must note that the site still has a lot of cool resources for people looking to start a Math Circle.

Update (11/26): Good news, everyone! I heard from the Director of NAMC and they ARE still offering grants. You can go here for more information. But be careful making your submission, apparently mine didn’t even go through. I guess I’ll try this again!

Afterword: The title is borrowed from a line from the TV show True Detective, delivered by Rust Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey) “Someone once told me, ‘Time is a flat circle.’ Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again.” Honestly, I was looking for a clever way to work Math Circle into the title, but somehow the more I think of it, the more this quote seems to fit the blog post.

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