March 11, 2015

Numbers Game: Gateway to Exploring Mathematical Sciences

Young math students
Giselle Tavarez and Eryn Mergaert, ninth-grade students at Rancho Cucamonga High School, work on math calculations during the Gateway to Exploring Mathematical Sciences (GEMS) workshop held March 7 at Claremont McKenna College.

They came for math. They got “magic.”

Nearly 100 eighth-, ninth-, and tenth-grade students attended a March 7 mathematics workshop at the Claremont Colleges that exposed them to the allure of algebra and the excitement of equations.

The workshop is part of an ongoing program named Gateway to Exploring Mathematical Sciences (GEMS). It is a joint effort through the Claremont Center for the Mathematical Sciences, which includes Claremont Graduate University (CGU) as well as the mathematics departments of Claremont McKenna, Pomona, Harvey Mudd, Scripps, and Pitzer colleges.

GEMS “emphasizes to young students that math is very broad and accessible, and that it has many applications to many subjects; scientific, cultural, or both,” said Ellis Cumberbatch, professor emeritus at CGU’s Institute of Mathematical Sciences.

Art Benjamin
Harvey Mudd math Professor Art Benjamin showcases “mathemagics” during the workshop by showing students how to square four-digit numbers in their heads and other “amazing feats of mind.”

The monthly Saturday workshops, hosted by Claremont McKenna, were founded in 2008. The two-hour sessions are designed to cultivate a passion for mathematics or science by presenting concepts in ways that are exciting and catch young students’ attention.

Enter, Art Benjamin, mathematics professor at Harvey Mudd and self-styled “mathemagician.” During the March 7 workshop he taught students how to square four-digit numbers in their heads, determine the day of the week for any date in history—including their birthdays—and create “magic squares,” an array or matrix in which every row, column, and diagonal add up to the same number.

“The thing about magic squares is that it’s like Sudoku on steroids,” Benjamin joked to the students.

After each demonstration, he revealed to students the principles behind the “magic.”

“The point of my show is not for students to see how smart I am, but how smart they can be,” said Benjamin.

For prior workshops, instructors discussed the math behind 3-D printing, medical imaging, fighting crime, voting, music, and knots. Undergraduate and graduate students from the Claremont Colleges assist the sessions.

“I think programs like GEMS are extremely worthwhile,” Benjamin said. “Often they are serving students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Students who have strong preparation in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] fields will always be in demand. But to appeal to students that age, it is important that they see the material as being fun and worthwhile.”

(L-R) Angela Zhu, Jeannie Chang, and Mandy Lee, eighth-graders at Suzanne Middle School in Walnut, working on a math exercise.

The next workshop is scheduled for April 11 with Chiu-Yen Kao, an associate professor at Claremont McKenna. For more information about GEMS, go to

Click on the link below for a video from a prior GEMS workshop: