Starting a Math Circle

I’ve been intrigued for a couple of years by the idea of math circles. Over Christmas I finally plucked up the courage to start one at a local primary school with my wife, a maths teacher. The school was happy, and recruited six pupils from Year 2 to Year 6 to attend.

Armed with a number of publications from the American Mathematical Society’s Mathematical Circles Library, our first task was to find a suitable topic for Session 1. Our primary goal was to find a topic that was clearly not everyday school maths, preferably as far away from the National Curriculum as possible, and ideally including practical activities.

In the end, we decided to look at Möbius strips. In the traditional of journal keeping for Mathematical Circles, I thought I would report the experience here in case anyone else wants to give it a go. In particular, we took the following approach:

  1. Make zero half-turn bands (loops) and colour the outside in one colour.  Then colour the inside in a different colour.
  2. Repeat with a one half-turn band. This caused some surprise when it became apparent that one colour coloured the whole band.
  3. Predict what would happen if you cut the zero half-turn band down the centre (prediction was universally that you’d get two zero half-turn bands). Try it.
  4. Now predict for the one half-turn band. Children were less sure about this case, but the most popular prediction was two half-turn bands. More surprise when it turned out to create a single four half-turn band. One child then went off on his own exploring what happened when you cut one of these four half-turn bands (two four half-turn bands).

By this time some of children were already off under their own steam, trying out their own experiments. This was great, but even with only six children and with two adults, I found it hard to pull together the outcomes of these experiments in any systematic way in real time.

Eventually we discovered together that:

  • If the initial number of half-turns is odd, cutting gives you one larger band with more half turns. (I was hoping we’d be able to quantify this, but it turns out to be very difficult to count the number of half-turns in a strip – even for me, let alone for the younger children!)
  • If the initial number of half-turns is even, cutting gives you two interlinked bands with the same number of half-turns.

This took up pretty much the whole 50mins we had for Session 1, though I did briefly try to show them an explanation of why this might be the case, following the diagrammatic representation in this document from the University of Surrey. I probably didn’t leave enough time to do this properly, and they were anyway keen on cutting and exploring by that time, so with hindsight I probably should have just left them to it.

What delighted me was the child who wanted to take home his Möbius strip to show his dad. So, not a bad start to the Math Circle. Let’s see how we get on!

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