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I love math nerd kids

July 15, 2011

So I’m almost at the end of my second week here at HCSSiM, and the pathetic truth is I already miss these kids. They are so freaking adorable, and of course I miss my own kids so much, that the emotional turmoil of the situation combines to create the reality that I am actually nostalgic for each moment with them before that moment happens. Pathetic!! It’s something about identifying with their nerdy selves finding each other and figuring out that they have a community of nerds that accepts them… whatever, now I’m tearing up. Pitiful.

As for what I’m teaching them, the first week it was number theory, number theory, and more number theory. Can you tell I like number theory? At the end of the first week I looked around and I saw a bunch of earnest faces wondering if I was going to prove yet another thing about relatively prime numbers and solving polynomials modulo n and I thought to myself, these kids are going to think there’s no other examples of proof by induction! How shameless! So this week I talked about graph theory. Next week: I’m going back to number theory. Yes I know, but it’s AWESOME. I’m going to talk about Farey numbers and continued fractions and maybe the Pell equation. They will know all about the golden ratio and maybe we’ll even measure each other’s faces. I can’t wait.

Last night we went to the director’s house and ate corn on the cob (we made the kids husk the corn- did you know teenagers today have mostly never husked corn before in their lives?) and pizza and we played “Mafia,” which was hilarious and sweetly innocent.

This weekend is “Yellow Pig day” at the camp program, which is a day where we celebrate yellow pigs and the number 17. We take this incredibly seriously, including making t-shirts with yellow pigs, having a 4-hour (feels like 17) talk about interesting properties of the number 17, and finally, singing yellow pig carols and eating a yellow pig cake at the end. It’s a wild time for math nerd kids. They will remember this and each other for the rest of their lives. Woohoo!!

Did I mention that I was a minor celebrity last night because I solved a 7x7x7 Rubik’s cube in front of them? This is status at its best. I even showed them my trick, and one of the kids came back to me at breakfast this morning proudly displaying his cube with a 3-cycle. Update: he has solved his entire cube using 3-cycles. Now he’s moving on to a dodecahedron puzzle.

LOVE these kids.

  1. July 15, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    >…I’m tearing up. Pitiful.

    It is not pitiful. What’s pitiful is that we had to live for so long without this. I felt the same way at my first math circle institute. (1st or 2nd week of July each year, at Notre Dame. More at themathcircle.org.)

    Love this post!


  2. Marli Wang
    July 15, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    Hooray for group theory!


  3. Richard Séguin
    July 15, 2011 at 11:18 pm

    A few months ago I walked into the math library at UW-Madison, and was startled to hear whooping and stomping noises invading the normally quiet library from somewhere in the math building. I learned after I exited the library that there was a special day long math program that day for area gifted elementary school kids. Their enthusiasm was delightful! Some of them were let out of a classroom down the hall, and when two of them passed me in the hallway one of them exclaimed “He was a REAL mathematician!” Someone did a fabulous job of getting these kids excited. Except for some rather formal NSF sponsored summer math programs at universities that I participated in as a high school student, nothing like this was available when I was a kid. It seems that there is now a little more emphasis on fun, as should be. The National Science Olympiad was happening here on the same day and that was reported on heavily in the local news, but as far as I’m concerned, it was the native enthusiasm of these young kids that should have been the news that day.


  4. July 17, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    I just got linked to your blog by Qiaochu.

    I was an HCSSiM student, back in the day (2006), and I know several of your co-staffers…and I miss it, a little, though. It *absolutely* changed my life.

    I would be there right now, but for certain political reasons.

    Mostly I just wanted to say…happy YP Day.


  5. Alex Kunin
    July 18, 2011 at 9:59 am

    Augh Cathy it’s not a camp ):


  6. Laurens Gunnarsen
    July 20, 2011 at 3:46 am

    The fundamental problem is that even the greatest summer program only helps during the summer.

    The rest of the year is almost certain to be a nightmare for these kids (as anyone who’s ever actually sat in a middle or high school math classroom for a day can tell you.) Even at “good” schools, indeed even in places like Princeton and Berkeley, gross pedagogical and mathematical malpractice is absolutely typical, and for most students it continues unrelieved all the way from K to 12.

    So if you really want to experience tearing up, if you really want pitiful, you should ask the kids you’re teaching to describe in detail the sort of classroom math experience they’ll be going back to when your program ends. (Or you can just read Lockhart’s Lament — which, if anything, understates the horror of the thing.)

    What’s needed is some really ingenious thinking, and some really concerted effort, devoted to changing the way kids experience mathematics year-round. Is this really a problem on the same scale with the Langlands program? It seems incredible that people capable of proving that every elliptic curve is modular should be utterly stumped by this one.


  1. April 8, 2012 at 6:39 am
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