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College People: Slava Krushkal

Expanding the Circle

By Lorenzo Perez

The talented mathematicians sat hunched over their calculations as they worked through a series of problems on an unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon last December. Sunlight streamed through the windows of the University of Virginia’s Charles L. Brown Science & Engineering Library, but no one, not even the small number cruncher wearing yellow soccer socks, shin guards, and cleats, directed a wistful gaze outdoors as they wrestled with a triangular array of binomial coefficients known as Pascal’s Triangle.

It was only when Slava Krushkal, a professor in the College’s Department of Mathematics, called for a short break that the 14 assembled students reverted back to elementary-school form, dueling over graph paper and using the wheelchair ramp at the far corner of the room as their own personal jungle gym.

“Graduate students will just sit down and work for hours on a problem, but I’ve learned that with kids, you have to entertain them and take breaks,” Krushkal said.

For the new Math Circle program that Krushkal launched last fall for 15 local 4th- and 5th-graders nominated by their schools, he looked for inspiration in his own educational experience growing up in Russia. As students achieved fluency in different mathematical concepts, the mathematics curriculum there stressed the importance of students honing their creativity as they think their way through increasingly difficult logic problems. The first Math Circles in the United States were organized by the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley, California. Today, there are more than 200 Math Circles around the country.

With the assistance of Gabriel Islambouli and Michael Reeks, two Ph.D. students in the mathematics department, Krushkal organized a semester-long schedule of Sunday afternoon Math Circle sessions. Setting up the program, he received some guidance from the Curry School of Education, as well as from his faculty colleague and former department of mathematics chair, Craig Huneke.

Krushkal leads a Math Circle program for local 4th- and 5th-graders Photo CreditMolly Angevine“We are exposing them to logical problems, topology and other concepts that they may never see in school,” Krushkal said. “Some of the things we show them are practical applications of math to real things. Some of them are fun mathematical games that feature deep mathematical principles underneath.”

The goal of the program, Krushkal said, is to stoke the curiosity of young students who have displayed an early aptitude for mathematics, while steering away from the rote memorization that may accompany their traditional instruction.

“We have many first-rate mathematicians at UVA, and the establishment of Math Circles allows us to use this talent to help K–12 students in our area,” Huneke said. “It is enormously empowering for children to think actively about the solution of mathematical problems, and to develop the solution themselves. No matter what the future holds for the children who go through Math Circles, the lessons they learn in problem-solving and self-reliance will be invaluable for them.”

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