Creating a passion for math in young students through Math Circles


It’s Saturday morning at FIU, and 14 children are talking about pirates.

They are discussing a tale that includes a captain, a crew, a voyage and a possible mutiny. The children need to determine how to convert land to nautical miles and how the speeds of ships are measured in knots by applying a formula related to distance, velocity and time to save the captain from being thrown overboard.

It doesn’t sound easy—and it’s not. But the eight boys and six girls are having fun trying to figure it out. Few are working quietly; problem solving here is a group activity.

These children are part of the Florida International University Math Circles led by FIU faculty Mirroslav Yotov and Gueo Grantcharov from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics in the College of Arts & Sciences. The concept behind Math Circles is stimulating and nurturing a passion for math in young students through discussion and creative problem solving.

“Math is more than just getting good grades,” Yotov explains.

In the United States, where much ink and attention is devoted to the students that are deficient in their math skills, there isn’t a lot of focus on those students who love math and want more. That need for an extracurricular activity for gifted math students, 9 to 18 years old, is what led Yotov and Grantcharov to start Math Circles at FIU. It is the only program of its kind in the state of Florida.

There are currently 140 Math Circles in the U.S. and Puerto Rico—32 of which are based in California. Sally Tappert, a math coach at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Day School in Coconut Grove, discovered FIU’s circle as she was participating in a Berkeley-based webcast. She had been looking for something else to offer some of her gifted math students, including then-fourth-grader Santiago “Santi” Cortes. Santi was so advanced for his age in math that he would finish his work in the first 15 minutes of class and fidget or read books under the table for the rest of the time.

“When you have a particular mathematical mind, you have to feed it. It’s a challenge to keep kids like this engaged,” Tappert says.

To her surprise, an inquiry she submitted to the organizers of the webcast directed her to FIU.

Santi is now in his second year with the circle and is very happy with the extra math he gets to do. Tappert recently attended her first circles session to see what her student was doing with the circle.

“I think it’s fantastic,” she says.

According to the National Association of Math Circles, math circles originated in Hungary more than a century ago. Continuing into Eastern Europe and Asia, the circles were groups of gifted students who would focus on complex mathematical equations and “train” for prestigious math competitions. Organized and directed by prominent professors and academicians, many circle students went on to have careers in math and science and to lead their own math circles.

Grantcharov and Yotov, who have known each other since 8th grade, were raised in Bulgaria with the tradition of math circles. When Yotov joined the faculty of FIU eight years ago, Grantcharov had just started the first group. At that point, there were no math circles to be found in Miami—or anywhere else in the state of Florida. Since then, the two professors alternate their groups every other Saturday. They work on a volunteer basis–there is no charge to the students.

Yotov directs the Little Circle for elementary and middle school students, and Grantcharov leads the Big Circle for high school students. They have had amazing success with their students entering and winning medals in math competitions–the 2011-2012 Math Olympiads for Middle and Elementary School Students resulted in two gold and two silver medals for the FIU circle.

But even more importantly, they are offering these students an outlet that they would not be able to find anywhere else in the state.

“We schedule our lives around these Saturdays,” says Naiyer Correal, father of 11-year-old Naige and nine-year-old Patrick, who make the long drive south twice a month from Cooper City, Florida.

“I come to learn more,” Naige says. “It’s a great opportunity to have a professor like Professor Yotov—I mean, you can’t get anything like him.”

However, Yotov might be a little disappointed to know that the Correal boys currently have other plans than academic careers in mathematics. Naige is aiming to be emperor of the world when he grows up, and Patrick will be building the robots for his big brother’s army. In the meantime they plan to continue going to math circles.

“Math is fun!” Patrick says.