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UC Berkeley mathematicians feed the minds of young local math whizzes

By Tamara Keith, Public Affairs

BERKELEY-- On Superbowl Sunday, as the big game was about to start, 30 teenagers and about a dozen mathematicians, teachers and parents gathered on the University of California, Berkeley, campus. Not to watch football, but to study mathematics.

For these students and teachers, who call themselves the Berkeley Math Circle, game day was just another opportunity to get together and prepare for the upcoming Bay Area Math Olympiad, set for February 23.

Founder of both the Bay Area Math Olympiad and the Berkeley Math Circle, UC Berkeley mathematician Zvezdelina Stankova-Frenkel said the Bay Area Math Olympiad is attracting interest from schools around the state.

"We expect to have more than 200 students compete," said Stankova-Frenkel, UC Berkeley's Morrey Assistant Professor of Mathematics. "There are already 35 schools signed up for the olympiad including several schools from Irvine in southern California"

Participants in the four-hour Bay Area Math Olympiad competition, the only regional olympiad of this type in the western United States, will be expected to find answers and set up proofs for five hard math problems. Four hours may seem like a long time for so few problems, but this is not your average test. The philosophy behind it is quality over quantity, and, unlike most math competition tests, there won't be any multiple choice questions.

"The students have to write complete solutions to the problems," explained Stankova-Frenkel. "If it means they have to include words and explanation then so be it."

Stankova-Frenkel, who also coaches the national olympiad team, said she hopes some of the students who do well in the Bay Area Math Olympiad can go on to compete for a spot on the national team.

Math circles like the one in Berkeley are not a new concept, but they are new to California and the United States. When the Berkeley Math Circle started last September, it was the first of its kind in the state. Now math circles also exist in Oakland, San Jose, Palo Alto and Irvine.

The circles, which first were created in Hungary during the 19th century and reached their peak in the former Soviet Union, are popular all over eastern Europe but are virtually unheard of in America. Unlike math clubs which are usually student run, these math circles are led by mathematicians and teachers trained in olympiad-style problem solving. The Berkeley Math Circle is led by eight mathematicians, five of whom teach at UC Berkeley.

Students in Berkeley's math circle range from seventh to 12th grade and come from as far away as Davis and San Jose to participate. Although the Berkeley Math Circle is not restricted to gifted students, it certainly attracts them. Gabriel Carroll, now a student assistant for the math circle, won a gold medal in the International Math Olympiad last year when he was only a high school freshman. Like Gabriel, most of the students in the program have advanced beyond their school's math curriculum and still want to increase their math skills and exchange mathematical creativity.

Aaron Wolz, a seventh grader attending private school in Oakland, said the math circle enables him to study mathematical concepts that typically aren't available to kids his age.

"In school I'm doing general seventh grade math. We are currently working on ratios. The math circle is more at my level," said Wolz. "It allows me to explore new areas of mathematics or at least new areas for me."

Aaron's mother, Laura Wolz, said the math circle is a good outlet for her son's mathematical curiosity.

"From the time he was very small, Aaron has always been very interested and talented in math," said Wolz. "He likes to extend things. He likes variety in math and he likes playing with math. I thought this would be a way for him to see math from a different point of view."

Stankova-Frenkel said that, although their teachers aren't necessarily at fault, most of the students who regularly attend the Berkeley Math Circle are unable to get the type of math education they crave at school.

"There are schools with exceptional math teachers," said Stankova Frenkel. "But more often than not these very talented exceptional teachers are locked into a pattern of teaching mathematics with methods and at levels so low that the kids that we get here are bored by what they learn at school. It is just simply not enough to challenge them."

At the weekly math circle meetings, students tackle difficult mathematical analyses and work on problem solving techniques. The math may not be all that complex on the surface, but as the problems unfold, an amazing level of difficulty is revealed. The math circle also covers concepts taught in the standard high school curriculum but presents them in a very different way and at greater depth.

"The problems usually can be stated in very simple terms," said Stankova-Frenkel. "People can understand what they're all about, but most will have no idea how to even approach them. And if they think they have the right answer, this will be either incorrect or not sufficiently justified to solve the problem mathematically."

Stankova-Frenkel said she hopes that math circles can become more widely accepted and utilized in schools around the country.

"I hope that some teachers will do their own little math circles in high schools because that is where really they should be," she said. "Math Olympiads need math circles, math circles need math olympiads, and talented kids need both."

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