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The Orange County Math Circle: A Service Learning Project

by Michelle Muratori, Ph.D.

SET Precollege Newsletter, No. 80, Fall 2008

(Permission for republishing granted by Dr. Linda Brody, SET Director, Center for Talented Youth, Johns Hopkins University)

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From 2010 Davidson Fellow

MM: Johnny, what is your project and how did you get started?

JL: My project is the Orange County Math Circle (OCMC). It is a service learning project where young mathematicians in grades 9 to 12 get together to explore advanced problem solving topics and apply our learning by teaching motivated students in underserved schools throughout the community. By integrating learning and teaching, I hope this project serves our community, strengthens its math culture, and makes more resources accessible to all who like to learn.

I have always loved math. When I was in 6th grade, I discovered the San Diego Math Circle (SDMC). Mr. Richard Rusczyk, its founder, became my mentor in pursing advanced problem solving. Besides learning new math topics and solving hard problems, I made friends with peers who shared my interest in math. Although the distance (a 120-mile round trip between Orange County and San Diego) made the trips rather inconvenient, my rejuvenated and growing interest kept drawing me back to the Circle every Saturday morning for the next three years. I often pondered starting a math circle in Orange County, but the idea seemed daunting to me because most math circles are run by professors or parents.

Last summer, at a time the gasoline price escalated exponentially. I started to think seriously about bringing the math circle experience to my home—Orange County. I kicked things off by creating a website (www.ocmathcircle.org) and then started searching for resources to build my project from scratch.

I came across the Davidson Ambassador Program during my research for my project, after I created the project website. The Program provided me with a systematic roadmap to carry out my project step by step under the guidance of a team of professional advisors and subject experts. The timelines kept me on track with my project. I really like the structure the Program offers and believe it could make my project better. I am very fortunate to receive support and guidance from my advisors at the Davidson Ambassador Program.

MM: What is happening with your project now? What stage of the planning process are you in now?

JL: My project is moving along with the training I received from the Ambassador Program. With support from my advisors and guidance from subject experts at Davidson, I have developed a business plan and schedule for my project. The business plan consists of a mission statement, the goals, objectives, strategies, and specific action steps to complete the project. Currently, I am carrying out the specific action steps, such as forming my advisory board, recruiting student council members, securing a facility, planning the 2008-2009 event calendar, setting up the website, and other activities. As the project and training progress, I continue to revise my strategy and adapt to the resources available to us.

My goal is to complete all major steps this summer and formally launch OCMC this fall.

MM: Have there been any surprises so far?

JL: I am amazed by how well the project has been received so far. All mentors I have approached have been very supportive. They have gladly accepted my invitation to join the board of advisors for the OCMC and helped me promote the project. Many students are enthusiastic about the Circle and want to volunteer. For our first activity—"Kalculators for Kids"—we asked students to donate their used calculators to help schools impacted by California budget cuts. Some of our calculators have already been used in the Breakthrough San Juan Capistrano program, which helps motivated, underserved middle school students. I was invited to visit the Breakthrough summer program last month and was pleased to see the role the OCMC can play in our community.

MM: What have your challenges been? How have you addressed them?

JL: Staying focused is most challenging to me. New ideas constantly pop into my mind. It’s very tempting to use them all, but that means I may lose focus. Therefore, whenever I think of a change or new idea, I check with the mission statement and objective in my business plan to make sure I am still on track. Another challenge is learning how to be an effective leader. Mr. Rusczyk, from our advisory board, mentioned the project at a local gathering two months ago. I immediately received requests from enthusiastic students who would love to work with me on the project. I am glad the Davidson Ambassador Program has given me a jump-start on learning some critical skills such as organization, communication, and leadership that I can immediately apply in the real world. With these eager volunteers, we are blessed to have a good start on the project.

MM: What have you learned about yourself through this process so far?

JL: The process has offered me many opportunities to reflect and learn. For one, I learned to appreciate the importance of communication. Learning various types of communication, gender and social influences, cognitive flexibility, and communicative adaptability had prompted me to be more sensitive to my audience. After all, the success of the OCMC relies heavily on competent communication to assemble our team, ask for support, promote our events, and transfer our knowledge.

MM: What advice can you give to others who are interested in doing community service projects? Can you offer any advice on how to get started?

JL: I would encourage others who are interested in doing community service projects to draw on their unique skills, creative talents, and interests about which they feel passionate. A service project is like a business and formulating a business plan is a good starting point. After revisions, start actions. After all, you’ve got nothing to lose and can only gain lots of experience from the process.

Note: Johnny has been a member of SET (The Julian C. Stanley Study of Exceptional Talent) since 2004.

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Math for Service