Upper School News

Math Circle Explores Machine Learning at Bay Meadows
LiAnn Yim

Room 245 in the Writing Resource Center was packed to capacity on Saturday afternoon, February 10, for the inaugural Bay Meadows Math Circle. Students from Nueva and other Bay Area high schools, along with many parents, flocked into the classroom and clustered around the tables, settling in for one of the two 70-minute Introduction to Machine Learning sessions taught by Nueva computer science teachers Jen Selby and Carl Shan. It was the first time that computer science was featured as a topic at a Math Circle.

“I think a lot of people hear ‘machine learning’ and wonder, ‘What does that mean? How do you gather data so that machines can learn?’” said Jen. “So we wanted to give students a better understanding of what machine learning is.”

During their session, Jen and Carl likened machine learning to various functions of the brain, drawing parallels between how neurons work in the brain and how computers use neural networks to make decisions. Students had the opportunity to participate in two activities that put the information they were learning immediately into practice.

While the machine learning workshop was targeted towards high school students, the session also drew in Thomas H., a current seventh-grade student at Nueva. “It was really great to learn about how this is used in the real world,” Thomas enthused. “It was easy to understand because Jen and Carl always compare it to what is happening in real life. It was a cool primer — seeing how a computer can adapt to specific inputs and outputs based upon what samples it has been given.”

Thomas’ father, Steve, who joined him in the session, shared that he works as a venture capitalist whose firm invests in machine learning and artificial intelligence companies. “What I gained was the opportunity to see graphical tools that highlight the underlying logic in machine learning and neural networks,” Steve said. “I’ve known the concepts, and here I was able to manipulate the variables to see in real time the different output that resulted.”

Elsewhere on campus, lower and middle school students engaged in different types of mathematical problem-solving and puzzles. Second grader Ravi K. and his father have attended every Math Circle since Ravi started at Nueva in kindergarten, and over the years they have learned puzzles and games that they continue to play at home together.

Math Circle is an worldwide outreach program that brings together students PK–12 to solve problems or investigate interesting topics in mathematics. Since Nueva's first Math Circle in 2010, it has been one of our most popular community events, bringing together Nueva students and families, as well as students from other schools, for a day of mathematical exploration and enrichment, and the opportunity for students to interact with visiting mathematicians and math experts.

Lora Saarnio, the faculty advisor for Math Circle, supports the Math Circle Chairs — a team of parents who organize three Math Circles each year, inviting guest speakers and planning the event’s activity sessions. (This year, the chairs are Sonia Schein, Justin Lin, and Karen Grunberg.)

“It’s a chance to be inspired and surprised, and experience the thrill, frustration, and joy of problem solving,” Lora said. “Math Circle is for every kid, not just those who think they like or are interested in math. It also echoes the values of our math program, with its emphasis on deep problem solving and wrestling with problems that cannot be solved in one sitting.”

This was Nueva’s largest Math Circle ever, and the first to be hosted at Bay Meadows. Over 70 percent of those who attended were non-Nueva students. After the immensely popular turnout for the Introduction to Machine Learning session, Lora and the Math Circle Chairs are seeking more speakers from different fields, and exploring topics targeted for the high school students.

“For the future, we’re considering having someone with an epidemiology or biotechnological background to lead a STEM/math-related session for a future Math Circle,” Lora said.

The next Math Circle will take place on Friday, April 27. For more information about the event, including online registration, please visit: http://www.nuevaschool.org/outreach/math-circle.


 LiAnn Yim, Publications Teacher/Advisor

February 14, 2018

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