The internet has revolutionized our ability to gather and disseminate information. There's no reason not to put it to work for the friendly neighborhood math circle. Speakers searching for topics should be aware that many existing math circles make handouts from past sessions available via the web. A minimal amount of further hunting will turn up a wide variety of mathematical enrichment ideas that can also serve as the basis for a math circle. On the flip side, most coordinators have ready access to server space via their institution or other sponsoring organization which could be used to host a math circle web site. It is worth the investment of time and energy to create a web site that is attractive and well-organized. The site can then function as a central clearinghouse for all items pertaining to the math circle for years to come. Indeed, a web site can become the face of the math circle to the outside world.
First and foremost, in order to be effective, a web site must be easily navigable. In other words, visitors to the site should be able to quickly find answers to a wide variety of questions with only a few mouse clicks. Spending a bit of time browsing through existing math circle web pages should give a sense of what sort of information to include at the site and how to arrange it. Displaying a list of the major sections of the site across the top or side of each page is usually quite helpful. As a simple litmus test, seat a friend who is not familiar with either the math circle or the web site at a computer and ask them a few basic questions, such as when the final meeting for the year will occur, where participants should park, what the tuition policy is, or how to contact the coordinator. Then watch their efforts to track down the answers.
It is also desirable to build an attractive site. To this end, consider setting up a consistent color scheme, displaying a common logo or institutional header across the top of each page, and employing common sense and good style when laying out text. FOR EXAMPLE, AVOID WRITING IN ALL CAPITALS. Large blocks of centered text are also a bad idea. Don't overload a page with too much information, forcing the user to scroll through many paragraphs as they look for an item. Rather, split material into many smaller topics, each of which will fit on one screen. There is plenty more free advice on this subject available on the internet. (See http://www.webstyleguide.com for one comprehensive introduction to sound design.) Most coordinators will want to enlist the aid of a colleague who has some experience with web page design. Many high school and college students are also quite adept. Be sure to provide this person with an overall plan for the organization of the site, thoughts regarding colors and motifs, and the text which will appear on the pages, known as "copy." Meet regularly during the construction of the site, since it is much easier to make midcourse corrections than sweeping revisions.
While every web site should be unique, there are some essential elements that should appear on any site devoted to math circles. Here are a few ideas for content to include, listed roughly in order of importance.
Home page. Guests to the site will see this page first. Include a brief description and mission of the math circle, the level of exposition, the names and positions of the organizers, contact info, the time and location for getting together, details regarding tuition, important announcements, and similar pieces of information. Links to all other major sections of the web site should appear across the top or left side, and the entire home page should fit on a single standard screen, or at least come close.
Location. Assuming that a student has the time and interest, the biggest obstacle to getting involved is simply getting there. Take the time to explain in detail exactly where the circle meets: provide driving directions from different regions, mention landmarks to help parents navigate, supply tips on where to park, and indicate which door to take into the building. If applicable, also supply directions for taking public transportation. Include maps or links to maps if possible.
Schedule. Go into more detail on the times and dates of the meetings. Include names and affiliations of speakers, topics and titles of presentations, and perhaps also any handouts. Prominently display holidays or other dates on which the math circle will not be gathering.
FAQ page. It's not a bad idea to devote a portion of the web site to answering Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ). These could include "What is a math circle?", "Who can attend?", "Where is it located?", "How much does it cost?", and so on. Don't worry about repeating information located elsewhere on the site; just include links where appropriate leading to more detailed information.
Pictures. A few snapshots of actual students engaged in mathematics will go a long way towards making newcomers feel welcome. But be sure to obtain appropriate signatures first; there are guidelines regulating when it is permissible to post pictures of students at a web site.
Math problems. Include a few nice problems to illustrate the sorts of mathematics presented at the math circle. These could be displayed as graphics or written up in a PDF file. Include solutions separately, or invite students to submit solutions. More ambitiously, post a problem of the week and award prizes to solvers at the math circle meeting.
Links. A page of hyperlinks to related sites is practically de rigueur for any serious web site. Include links to other math circles, favorite math sites, other local mathematical events or organizations, sponsors, or anything else that seems appropriate.
And while on the subject of links, it is worth mentioning that savvy webmasters arrange for links pointing in the other direction as well. In other words, a web site is only as effective as it is accessible. Search engines help out a lot in this regard, but it is still worthwhile to contact the administrators who maintain sites for schools in the area to ask whether it would be possible to include a link to the math circle (along with a brief description) in a place where students are likely to come across it. The same would be true for other sites likely to be visited by students who enjoy math.
Although the actual web site pages may reside on a server in a math department, it will often make sense to buy a domain name from an internet service that points to the real web pages. Their fee should be relatively minimal, on the order of ten dollars per year. Thus it would be far more memorable to invite participants to find information at www.abcmathcircle.org than to ask them to visit www.universityofabc/math/organizername/circle.html. Now that the internet has made obtaining data so potentially easy, users are more susceptible than ever to ignoring information that is not readily accessible.
Coordinators inevitably find themselves in the position of needing to make urgent, last minute announcements, such as reminding students to bring their ruler and compass with them to tomorrow's meeting. Once again technology speeds to the rescue, providing a number of methods for keeping in touch with participants. The most straight-forward approach is to simply ask students to supply a current email address the first time they visit the math circle, and then use this registration information to maintain an email list.
Almost all students have email accounts, check them regularly, and are willing to be contacted for a purpose as noble as a math circle. Just state clearly on the registration sheet that email addresses are never distributed to other organizations. Be sure to follow through on this promise and honor any requests to be taken off the list. One might also consider maintaining a similar email list for parents or teachers if the need arises.
Other methods for keeping in touch include user groups, bulletin boards, and other online forums. The former approach involves signing up with an internet service and then creating a group. Whenever messages are addressed to the group, everyone who has joined receives the email. In this way email addresses are kept confidential, even from the person who initiates the group. The primary challenge here is to convince students to actually join the group; in practice less than half get around to it. This approach requires a little more effort to set in place as well. The other option available to math circles is an online forum, which can provide a nice solution to the problem of having kids communicate with one another between meetings, collaborate on solving problems posed at the most recent session, and so on. The drawbacks remain the same, however: students are typically too busy during the rest of the week to think about the math circle, no matter how engaging it was at the time. So most organizers will opt for maintaining an email list and contacting students directly when the shortage of rulers and compasses becomes apparent.
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