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Making Mathematics Magic

AU’s DC Math Circle is inspiring the next generation of mathematicians

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It’s a quiet Thursday evening on campus when 20 or so youngsters shyly shuffle into a classroom in the Don Myers Technology and Innovation Building for DC Math Circle—a free weekly program for high-achieving kids, run since 2017 by AU’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics.

As they check in at a table by the door, their bashful demeanor provides little indication of what’s ahead. Within minutes, a once hushed room will grow exponentially louder as kids confidently call out digits and excitedly scribble long division problems in an explosion of blue, red, green, and black dry erase markers.

The stark difference from one moment to the next? It’s magic. The sorcery begins when Hurst senior professorial lecturer Michael Limarzi writes a long number on a white board at the front of the room.

“If I ask if this number divisible by seven or 17 or 177, it would be hard to do just by looking at it, right?” Limarzi said. “That is, unless you are a math magician.”

The fourth- through eighth graders—clad in hoodies and Minecraft t-shirts—are locked in for the next hour, as Limarzi, donning a wizard hat, leads them through a series of tricky math problems.

Inspired by the Eastern European problem-solving discussion approach to math education, math circles have formed across the world to challenge bright young learners who enjoy the subject through educational enrichment. Each week, the AU group brings in guests to help fuel a passion for math in the next generation and bring a little fun to the subject.

“It’s the best thing ever for a teacher,” said CAS math professor Jeff Adler, who runs the DC Math Circle alongside senior professorial math lecturers Donna Dietz and Michael Keynes. “We could say it’s because we’re all wonderful teachers, but the reason is that the kids want to be here.”

Among those high achievers: Cary Deahl, a fourth grader at DC public school Lafayette Elementary School, who considers the tough but enjoyable Thursday night lessons a highlight of the week.

“They bring in new speakers every week to introduce the kids to fairly advanced concepts, but explain them in ways that are really accessible, interactive, and engaging,” said Cary’s father, Josh Deahl. “Cary is pretty interested and gifted in math on his own, but math circle offers a truly invaluable service in helping to keep that fire burning within him, and we are so thankful for it.”

For Dalia Azam, a seventh grader who is already taking high school geometry and algebra courses, finding the group ended a three-year search for a math circle after being involved in a group run by UCLA while her family lived in Los Angeles. Dalia, who plans to pursue a career in biochemistry, is challenged by what she learns, and her mother enjoys listening in on the sessions too.

“This math is really fun,” said Dalia’s mother, Sharlene Azam, who previously homeschooled her daughter. “It’s quite different from school. We have a ton of math circle books, and we’ve been doing math from them over the years. It’s just a completely different way of thinking.”

For the faculty—who primarily teach college students—the change of pace of working with younger students is a welcomed opportunity as well. It’s a tradition for mathematicians to pass on the knowledge that was once taught to them, Adler explained.

When giving back includes supernatural equations, that duty is hardly a chore.

“This is fun because you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Adler said, “but you can work it out.”