Tulsa Girls’ Math Circle

What does Ariana Sayeed, a seventh grader at Jenks Seventh and Eighth Grade Center, have in common with Kassandra Contreras, a sixth grader at Collinsville Middle School? They both love math and participate in the Tulsa Girls’ Math Circle at The University of Tulsa.

Ariana is on her school’s Math Counts and Robotics teams. This is her second year to attend the Girls’ Math Circle, and she said the program allows her to think outside the box when solving math problems. “In school we work math problems, but they are not really like the kinds of problems we work here,” she explained. “I like that we work with a partner or group to come up with a solution. It is more about the process of math here.”

Math Circle Origins

The Tulsa Girls’ Math Circle is the brainchild of Donna Farrior, a visiting associate professor of mathematics at The University of Tulsa. Now in its second year, the Girls’ Math Circle draws over 30 middle school girls from throughout the Tulsa area. Some of the girls are confident in math while others are seeking that confidence.

The Math Circle concept began in Eastern Europe and eventually migrated to the United States in the 1990s. Today, more than 180 Math Circle programs are operating across the country. The Tulsa Girls’ Math Circle, said Farrior, seeks girls who love to solve problems, are curious about math and would like to meet others who share their enthusiasm for math.

Starting a New Session

On the first Tuesday night of the fall session, Farrior asked the room full of girls a question: “Who has fun doing math?”  Most of the girls raised their hand, some a bit apprehensively.

“The Math Circle is not about school. You are not trying to pass a test,” Farrior assured the group. “We want you to learn new ideas, make new friends and be involved.”

After a few Math Circle ground rules are discussed, such as being on time, coming prepared, listening when a leader is talking and putting away cell phones, the girls were handed a sheet of paper with three math problems. The problems were not traditional math equations but hands-on word problems.

Some of the girls were a bit shy and hesitated to partner with a girl or group at their table, while others jumped right into a group.

Farrior is assisted by fellow TU math professors and math students. They joined some of the groups, encouraging the girls to write down their solution process and explore different ways to come up with an answer.

“We are more concerned about the process of solving the problem, not the answer or solution,” said Farrior, who described the math problems the girls work as accessible to anyone with basic math skills, but rich enough to engage those with advanced skills.

“Many of the problems require finding a pattern, or performing simple arithmetical operations to generate surprising or interesting results. The main ingredients needed of students are curiosity, engagement and persistence,” she said.

Kassandra and Sydney Bush, a seventh grader from Bixby, worked as a team to tackle the first problem that involved a certain number of paper cups. They tediously worked through several scenarios before concluding there was not a solution.

“This is common sense, I think,” Sydney said.  “It can’t work because there are seven cups and seven is a prime number.” Kassandra agreed and added that an even number of cups would make the problem solvable.

Building Skills Beyond Math

Farrior said the skills gained by the girls at the Math Circle will empower them beyond their math class at school.

“I hope our Math Circle girls are willing to tackle any problem they encounter in school and beyond and can think of different ways to attack a subject they might find difficult. I hope they are becoming creative and persistent problem solvers with the skills that carry over to all subjects. I hope they have a belief in their ability to conquer difficult work and enjoy “funstration”—-not understanding, yet enjoying the process of making progress on a problem.”

Ariana sees math as a pathway to a career in engineering or medicine.

Farrior agreed. “Math opportunities for women today are wide open,” she said. “So many jobs, not just those in STEM fields, have interesting applications in mathematics. As computers have become pocket-sized tools for all, mathematical modeling has become more and more common in many fields. Having had the experience at a young age in the Math Circle, we hope our girls will know how much fun it is to solve hard problems, and want to continue doing that by majoring in a STEM field in college.”

Tulsa Girls’ Math Circle Enrollment

The Tulsa Girls’ Math Circle is open to girls in grades six through eight from any school in the Tulsa area. It is free to all students.

Applications are available here.


Categories: Education: Middle and High School