National Association of Math Circles Wiki
Publicity: Getting the Word Out

Scheduling speakers may be the most challenging aspect of coordinating a math circle, but the task of successfully advertising the circle to students runs a close second. One of the most effective ways of notifying potential participants, of course, is to send a message directly to the students themselves. Various organizations that offer math or science programs for secondary schools might be willing to contact the students on their email lists on the circle's behalf. Naturally it is a good idea to write out a paragraph or two introducing math circle which can be used within their message. This approach has the added advantage that the math circle is implicitly endorsed by an organization with which the students have (hopefully) already had a positive experience. Students heard about the Stanford Math Circle in this fashion, when the local ARML coach and the Art of Problem Solving web site both sent out messages to students in the area less than two weeks before the initial meeting. Nearly fifty students (and a substantial number of parents) appeared the first weekend, forcing the event to move to a larger auditorium at the last minute.

Other methods for contacting students can be loosely classified according to the messenger. The most obvious choice of person to deliver a flyer or make an announcement would seem to be a math teacher, thereby ensuring that the news reached students at the appropriate grade level and geographic region. This strategy can work, and is in fact one of the best ways to reach "unenriched" or minority populations. However, results will vary dramatically depending on the amount of initiative displayed by the various teachers. As part of their publicity effort, the Mobile Math Circle mailed flyers to all teachers at nearby public high schools to announce their circle. They proceeded to discover that a disproportionate number of kids all came due to the efforts of one particularly enthusiastic math teacher. In the end, the percentage of teachers who disregard math circle flyers is often too high to make this means of contacting students viable for organizers.

As something of an extreme example, consider the cautionary tale of the University of Birmingham, whose math department took it upon themselves to provide an uplifting mathematical experience for boys and girls attending the neighborhood city schools. A few organizers put together the entire math circle package, complete with a schedule of speakers, space to conduct Saturday morning events, even funding to provide transportation to and from local schools each weekend. Unfortunately, nobody thought to get the teachers on board. When a comprehensive mailing was sent out announcing the new math circle, the organizers received exactly one response, and the program folded before it began.

When a teacher can be found who is willing to steer students towards the math circle, it is important to impress upon them the type of student who would benefit most from a math circle. In particular, there is much lower correlation between grades in school and math circle appreciation than most teachers would expect. Students should attend a math circle out of a innate love for the subject: because they are fascinated by the clever patterns among Fibonacci numbers, because they can't wait to see how number theory is used to enable secure transactions over the internet, or simply because they love to solve problems. Some of these kids are also A students, but some are not. To put it another way, some students earn top grades in math because they are academically competitive or because they have become quite adroit at solving textbook exercises. These facets of classroom education are either downplayed or non-existent at a math circle, making the environment much less appealing to these types of students. As an illustration, one math circle encouraged teachers to offer extra credit to students who attended. Not surprisingly, this ploy attracted the wrong crowd, and was abandoned some time later. On the other hand, a teacher from another area allowed students attending the weekend math circle to skip the assignment due Monday morning. Since it was simpler for the academically minded kids to just polish off their homework questions, only those truly interested in the math circle consistently accepted her offer. To recapitulate, it is more important for a student to be interested in math than accomplished at math.

The return on advertising investment drops even further when attempting to reach students and teachers through school administrations. Experience has shown that most school systems simply ignore appeals to advertise math circles. Given the number of organizations that would benefit from contacting potential customers in this manner, one can hardly blame them. The exception to this rule occurs when a math circle is able to gain the support of an individual with connections to those who oversee or promote math enrichment within the school district. The San Francisco Math Circle illustrates a perfect example of this sort of phenomenon. They attempted to reach math teachers via central school offices for weeks to absolutely no avail. Fortunately, they were able to contact an independent consultant who helped set up meetings with math department chairs in the area. To the relief of the organizers, interest in this new math circle for students and teachers quickly sprang up, resulting in a much more substantial turnout than originally anticipated. When it comes to penetrating bureaucracy, finding the right person makes all the difference.

There are practically as many other creative means of disseminating information as there are math circles. Ideas that have been tried, or at least considered, include the following:

  •   Make an announcement in the weekly college newsletter sent out to all employees. This tactic can net a substantial number of faculty kids.
  •   Have hand-picked graduate students (or faculty members, better yet) give guest presentations at math clubs in local secondary schools, then distribute information about the math circle.
  •   Send a press release to local newspapers and TV or radio stations. One math circle landed a spot on the morning news this way. Another received quite a few phone calls from interested parents after a widely-circulated paper ran a story on math circles.
  •   Find a parent who is willing to speak directly with teachers to advertise the math circle, since teachers can be intimidated by and hence dismissive of a university-based program.
  •   Encourage supportive parents to spread the word among families in their after school programs, churches, workplaces, or anywhere else.
  •   Set up a direct mailing of flyers to all residential addresses in the area announcing the circle. This approach requires some financial outlay, of course, but is hard to beat in terms of sheer impact.

The biggest hurdle to overcome is convincing students to attend once. After they have found time in their schedule, navigated parking lots, located the meeting room, and met a few of their mathematical peers, they will realize that math circles are truly wonderful events and will want to return regularly.

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