A Circle that Attracts Mathematicians

Math Circle

What attracted nearly 100 middle school students to Rice University on a Sunday afternoon in February and set the Brockman Hall for Physics abuzz with excitement? Answer: The opportunity to participate in Rice’s Math Circle.

The Rice University Department of Mathematics, together with the Rice University School Mathematics Project (RUSMP), launched the Math Circle at Rice University in September 2012, and it is still going strong.

Middle school students explore the theory of knots
NUTS OVER KNOTS: Middle school students explore the theory of knots at Rice’s Math Circle.

Rice’s Math Circle is a part of a national organization that unites mathematicians and precollege students who are interested in mathematics. Math Circles create opportunities for stimulating mathematics enrichment, while providing faculty a chance to do outreach. Students meet with mathematicians in informal settings to work on challenging problems or explore topics in mathematics that receive little or no attention in precollege mathematics classes. The goal is to inspire precollege students to explore rigorous mathematics.

This year’s Math Circle was designed for Houston-area middle school students. Students met on selected Sundays from 1 to 3 p.m. on the Rice campus. At one Sunday meeting, Allison Miller, the G.C. Evans Instructor in the Department of Mathematics at Rice, guided students in exploring knots. Miller teaches an undergraduate math course at Rice on knot theory and thought it would be fun to bring the topic to younger students to explore, and she wasn’t wrong. Charlie Burrus and Ralph Polley, National Science Foundation Robert Noyce Fellows (Grant No. 1556006), assisted with the group along with Rice University Department of Mathematics graduate students Xian Dai and Connor Sell, and Anne Papakonstantinou, RUSMP director.

Chair of the Department of Mathematics, Alan Reid, said: “I see outreach activities, such as Math Circle, as vital to our mission of raising mathematical awareness and literacy in the community, and especially among girls and traditionally underrepresented minorities in mathematics. Hopefully such events can spark the imagination of students to continue to think about mathematics, consider being a math major in the future and consider careers that have strong mathematical backgrounds.”

The middle school students who attended represented more than 20 middle schools in the Greater Houston area. For those interested in learning more about Rice’s Math Circle, please visit the website at https://math.rice.edu/Outreach/MathCircle/index.html.

— Anne Papakonstantinou
Rice University
School Mathematics Project


A quarterly newsletter that showcases the university’s outreach programs. Each issue of the newsletter includes a series of stories that raise the awareness of Rice’s engagement with the city and beyond.