school spotlight madison math circle

Jean-Luc Thiffeault discusses the mathematics of taffy folds during the a recent Madison Math Circle at UW-Madison.

Every week, middle and high school students are invited to the UW Madison campus to hear a talk designed to stimulate their interest in math and science and then to mingle with professors and their peers over pizza.

Called Madison Math Circle, the activity was started this fall as a replacement for the former High School Math Nights previously run on campus every other week. Organizer Gheorghe Craciun, associate professor in the math and biomolecular chemistry departments, said middle school students are now included because he found high school students are often too busy with other activities to attend.

Kevin Zamzow, who attended the Nov. 7 Madison Math Circle with his son, Noah Zamzow-Schmidt, approached the UW Madison math department about organizing the activity. Math circles are held at campuses around the country although Zamzow doesn't know of another one in Wisconsin.

"I enjoy math," said Noah, 12, a seventh grader at Edgewood Campus School who is taking 10th and 11th grade math classes at Edgewood High School. "I really enjoyed the topic tonight."

Jean-Luc Thiffeault, associate professor of applied mathematics, talked about how devices to make taffy and bread and the folds of product they create can illustrate some famous mathematical sequences. The topic is related to Thiffeault's research but he presented it with slides and video in a way that would interest his Madison Math Circle audience.

Anna Welton-Arndt, 13, an eighth grader who is working ahead of her peers at Kromrey Middle School in Middleton, attended the session with her mother, Laura Welton-Arndt, and enjoyed Thiffeault's real world topic.

Craciun said the first math circle, which was started at the University of California, Berkeley, was inspired by similar circles in the Middle East. He envisions that eventually students will take a more active part in a number of ways such as doing some problem-solving on their own, suggesting topics and perhaps even leading some discussions.

"Slowly this will become an activity where the students are much more involved," he said. "A real math circle would go both ways."

Madison Math Circles start at 6 p.m. in Room B223 in Van Vleck Hall. For more information about the remaining November circles and others in the future, see http://www.mathcircles.org/. Those interested in attending should let the math department know through an email on the site so the appropriate amount of pizza can be ordered.

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