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Young Mathematicians Inspired Through Math Circle

Nov. 27, 2012

Man wearing a light blue shirt and glasses.

Bogdan Suceavă, professor of mathematics, started the Fullerton Math Circle on campus to give local gifted children the opportunity to get specialized instruction in high-level math concepts, and to instill a love of learning and excelling in the discipline.

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On Saturday mornings this fall semester, a handful of Cal State Fullerton mathematics students have been spending time introducing, and inspiring, gifted young minds to the world of advanced math through the Fullerton Mathematical Circle.

The students are committed, dedicated and hopeful that their elementary- to high school-age pupils will become more motivated and excited about math.

"I hope these students realize that math can be fun! It can be tough and frustrating at times, but the fun part comes after they have solved a problem, which can be a really rewarding feeling," said Lucy Odom, a mathematics major who facilitates math circle sessions for second-, third- and fourth-grade students. "If anything, these kids inspire me to be a better student because of their eagerness to learn and their ability to overcome challenging problems." 

Rebecca Etnyre, who also instructs elementary-age students and is aspiring to become a teacher, enjoys mentoring her adolescent students. "I hope to be an inspiration for the children by showing that math is something you can make a career out of and that it does apply to real life. I want them to see that college and higher education is essential, and that they can learn many new concepts that someday will benefit them."

The Fullerton Math Circle is an education enrichment and outreach program instituted a year ago by Bogdan Suceavă, professor of mathematics. Suceavă is not only passionate about challenging his own students, but also about giving local children the opportunity to get specialized instruction to high-level math concepts to instill a love of learning and excelling in the discipline.

"I have to say that I strongly believe in public education, and it is our duty as scholars to do everything we can to spread access to information and knowledge, to ensure students' personal development in math," Suceavă said. "Math circles are one of the best ways to address the needs of future mathematicians, to nurture their desire to see challenging math concepts, to write problems on the board and to speak to their young colleagues about problems of common interest."

Since its start, the math circle has grown to about 70 elementary, middle and high school students — from throughout Orange County and nearby communities — who regularly attend the weekend sessions. For each Saturday math circle, Suceavă organizes four simultaneous sessions with children grouped according to age and grade.

New this fall, the sessions are facilitated by six undergraduate math majors. In addition to Etnyre and Odom, they include Charles Conley, the university's highest-ranked competitor in the William Lowell Putnam Competition, a national math contest for college students; Brady Gardener; Kelly Hartmann; and Duy Ngo. Graduate student Carol Kempiak has been involved since the beginning and plans to complete the master of arts in mathematics-teaching option next spring to become a teacher.

While the math students participate in the program for different reasons — some are pursuing teaching careers, others advanced math degrees — each is gaining valuable undergraduate experience in teaching, training and research, Suceavă noted.

Suceavă, a native of Romania, explains why, drawing from his own exposure as a college student to math experts and activities. As an undergraduate, he was invited by the president of the Romanian Society for Mathematical Science to deliver presentations to the organization's summer school prior to the group’s annual contest. By the time he was 22, he wrote six problems for national-level competitions and participated in their process of grading the solutions for these problems.

"Writing a good problem for a national math Olympiad is not a trivial challenge: the content receives a lot of scrutiny," he said. "That experience was quite important for me, as well as for several other undergraduate students who received similar invitations. We delivered presentations for the participants to the competitions, wrote problems for their exams, graded the solutions to the very same problems.

"I've modeled the Fullerton Math Circle on my academic experience in Romania by creating a program where the undergraduate students are preparing themselves to compete in national competitions while involved in delivering presentations or supervising workshops for highly gifted K-12 students."

In the Math Circle sessions, young participants are introduced to problems from well-respected sources, such as the International Mathematical Olympiad, or from journals like the American Mathematical Monthly or the Romanian, Gazeta Matematica. While the advanced mathematical content presented in math circle sessions is the focus, there is so much more offered to captivate young scholars, Suceavă said. The young mathematicians are encouraged to take part in worldwide math competitions, such as Math Kangaroo, and present their solutions to problems to math journals.

Sessions have included invited speakers from the Mathematics Department — such as assistant professors Adam Glesser and Zair Ibragimov, and professors Scott Annin, Gerald Gannon and David Pagni, who helped with curriculum development — as well as faculty members from universities across the region and internationally acclaimed math experts.

The Math Circle benefits Cal State Fullerton math majors by offering "a fantastic opportunity for our students to experience a classroom-like interaction with highly gifted students in grades 2-12, while exposing them to various classes of elementary mathematics problems with a higher degree of challenge," Suceavă offered.

"For the students interested in pursuing a graduate career, this is actually highly beneficial, since it prepares them for the work they will do all their life. For the students interested in becoming K-12 educators themselves, it will show them how to train the gifted students they will meet in their future schools."

In addition, Suceavă's math circle students are exposed to more challenging mathematical problems and the latest research in the field, as well as being able to participate in math competitions. Suceavă also has developed other math enrichment programs to benefit Cal State Fullerton students, such as the Geometry Seminar, where he and his students present research results, and the Problem Solving Seminar, where undergraduate students prepare every fall for the Putnam Competition, held this year on Dec. 1.

Etnyre is involved in the program primarily to familiarize and understand the working knowledge of young "brilliant-minded students."

"As a future high school mathematics teacher, I not only want to be aware that students need extra help, but there also are extremely gifted students who need a challenge," she said.

Odom also wanted the experience of leading in the classroom environment and helping students learn math.

"I am always amazed at how quick these kids are picking up the material I prepare for them. What I like most is when they start coming up on the board to work the problems out in front of their peers," said Odom, a research scholar in the California State University Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program, also known as LSAMP. "Some of them can be shy, but I am always encouraging them to work problems up on the board because they each have different ways in approaching a problem."

For Etnyre, she agrees that the math circle has deeply enriched her own college education and reinforced her goal of working with young students.

"These young mathematicians blow me away," she said. "They are incredibly gifted and have so many interesting ideas to contribute to mathematical concepts. They look at it with a different eye and can see relations that even some of our professors can't see."

Suceavă, who received a small grant from the Mathematical Association of America to support the work of his student facilitators this fall and is seeking additional funding, noted that the efforts of all involved have been well worth it.

"After more than one year of work with these students, I care about how they feel about mathematics as if they were a member of my family," he said. "For our students, they get trained to educate gifted students, which means we are educating the top 3 percent in the academic population: these are our future engineers, physicists, technicians and scholars. So this is really important, and we need to address the needs of this academic group with as much care as we need to address other groups."

By: Debra Cano Ramos, 657-278-4027

Tags:  Academics & ResearchCommunity