Published May 20, 2021 by Brianna Donaldson

Circling to Connect from Math Teachers' Circle Network

An African American man and boy sit at a table. On the table is a checkerboard with yellow and red discs and a king chess piece. The boy wears a Golden State Warriors blue sweatshirt with gold/yellow graphic on the front.

On Saturday, May 11, 2019, about 100 students and their families gathered at Gwinn Elementary School in San Martin, Calif., about 25 miles south of San Jose, for a Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival (JRMF). JRMFs are locally organized events intended to inspire K-12 students to explore the richness and beauty of mathematics through problem solving. Founded in 2007 by Silicon Valley native and math puzzle enthusiast, Nancy Blachman, JRMFs are collaborative, community-friendly mathematics festivals intended to serve as an alternative to competitions for getting students — especially girls and underrepresented minority students — and their surrounding communities engaged in mathematics. To inspire participants to persist in mathematics, Blachman named the festivals after mathematician Julia Robinson, who was one of the solvers of Hilbert’s tenth problem and who overcame many obstacles to achieve a highly successful career as a woman in mathematics. Over 100 JRMFs are held each year at locations throughout the U.S. and the world.

The JRMF at Gwinn was special because it marked the beginning of a collaborative partnership between the American Institute of Mathematics (AIM) and the Santa Clara County Office of Education (SCCOE), which serves nearly 300,000 students in the most populous county in the San Francisco Bay Area. The partnership focuses on bringing JRMFs to Santa Clara County’s Title I schools, like Gwinn. MTCs organized by AIM will play a critical role as the partnership develops. In particular, teachers from Santa Clara County schools will participate in AIM MTC meetings that will incorporate JRMF activities and facilitator training, so that the teachers can help facilitate students’ problem-solving during the planned JRMFs. In addition, SCCOE will help advertise and recruit key players to bring JRMFs to other schools.

It is anticipated that several additional JRMFs will be held as a result of this partnership in 2019-2020. “We envision these JRMFs, combined with MTCs and other synergistic programs like Math Mondays (LINK LINK LINK), as forming the basis for strong, school-based mathematical communities,” said Brian Conrey, Executive Director of AIM. “We hope that this partnership with SCCOE can grow into a model that is of interest to other MTCs looking to connect more directly with schools.”

JRMF activities are highly accessible, yet provide opportunities for rich investigation. Two of the activities used in the Gwinn JRMF were “Puppies and Kittens” and “Queen’s Move.” (Download a PDF version.) We invite you to explore this pair of activities with your MTC and see what unexpected connections you can discover.

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Brianna Donaldson is the Director of Special Workshops at the American Institute of Mathematics (AIM). She manages the Math Teachers' Circle Network, a national network of professional development communities for middle school math teachers. She received her PhD from Indiana University and her research interests include mathematical models of perceptual decision-making.

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