Julia Nagel/Sun Photography Editor

Senior Mentor Lucia Pannunzio '23 helps a group of students problem-solve a KenKen logic problem at a Math Circle meeting at Dewitt Middle School.

April 19, 2023

Ithaca Math Circle Empowers Middle Schoolers With Logical Skills

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Students at Dewitt Middle School and Boynton Middle School have the opportunity to make modular origami, play a math version of Wordle and challenge themselves with mathematical Sudoku, also known as KenKen. At weekly math circle meetings, Cornell student mentors impart their love for mathematics to local middle-school students in a non-academic setting.

Ithaca Math Circle was founded by Maya Mau ’24, with its first semester of operations in the fall. Mau had volunteered with the Cambridge Math Circle since the pandemic and was inspired to implement a similar program for the Ithaca community. Her mother grew up in the Ithaca City School District and told Mau the impact the education system had on her, inspiring her to start a math circle in the local community.

Mau also said she was drawn to math circle because she thought she was bad at math until she had a great mathematics teacher in eighth grade that changed her experiences with the subject. 

“By offering this for free in the public schools, my hope is that we can show kids who maybe thought they weren’t good at math or thought that they weren’t smart that they can pick up this stuff very quickly — and it can be fun too,” Mau said. “Hopefully this encourages them to enjoy learning through the rest of their lives.”

Mau completed all the necessary paperwork to set up a nonprofit organization through the assistance of the pro bono clinic at the Cornell Law School. Though not affiliated with the University, the Ithaca Math Circle consists of Cornellian women mentors, purposefully chosen across majors to bring in their unique perspectives.

Ithaca Math Circle operated out of Dewitt Middle School last semester, but has expanded into Boynton Middle School this semester with the goal of serving more students. The group hopes to show students that learning math can be fun.

“As opposed to doing specific math skills, … we focus on problem solving and pattern recognition generally to build math skills and competence in ways that would be applicable to what they’re learning in the classroom,” said Ruth Steinhouse ’24, executive director of Ithaca Math Circle. 

The mentors are responsible for designing the curriculum for students. Games, puzzles and art projects are at the foundation of the club’s teaching style, facilitating student learning on topics ranging from Roman numerals and Morse code to geometry. Some weeks, students test their math skills to win prizes like dog themed stickers or skittles. 

At a recent math circle meeting, middle school students expressed their fondness of the program to The Sun. Sixth grader Supantra Pannhlaing described the meetings as much “funner” and more engaging than her traditional school math class.

“I wanted to enjoy the fun here,” Pannhlaing said about what keeps her coming to the optional after school meetings. “It really just gives my brain some exercise.”

At each math circle, students have the opportunity to work in small groups of two to four people, enjoy a snack and chat with their mentor. Divided into small pods, students can engage with one another and ask their mentor questions more easily than during their math classes in school. The informal atmosphere allows students to relax and enjoy learning math. 

“I was a little worried at first because to convince people to do more school outside of school is a hard sell,” Mau said. “But we made it pretty clear from the get-go this is not more school. It is working on teaching the problem solving skills that would help them in school, but not with an academic focus.”

Students also expressed appreciation for their Cornell-student mentors and tend to develop deep relationships with the mentors over the weeks of the program.

“I think it’s as much about the math for them as it is about having a fun after school safe space to hang out with friends and bond with Cornell students,” Steinhouse said.

Not only do students appear to benefit from the program, but mentors said the program has been a good way for them to engage with the local Ithaca community.

“It’s so easy to get caught in the Cornell bubble,” Steinhouse said. “I found it really rewarding to connect with the [local] community.”

Ithaca Math Circle gets most of its funding from the Ithaca City School District, but also has received donations from several Ithaca-based organizations including Ned’s Pizza, P&L Supply and Sweet N’ Salty, in addition to the national organizations 7-Eleven and Wegmans.

“We’ve partnered with organizations in the community to make sure that all students are able to have a healthy snack at their program free of charge,” Steinhouse said.