Careers / Summer Program in Mathematical Problem Solving

Summer Program in Mathematical Problem Solving

Remember the summer between 7th and 8th grade? For many of us, memories of that glorious time, around 12 or 13 years of age, includes days at the beach, concerts with friends, backyard barbecues, bike-riding and a strong commitment to some well-earned R&R camp. While we may have been somewhere between the beginning and the end of a summer reading list, most of us will not recall that summer as a time of 7-hour days of intensive math work followed by nature walks and outdoor activities. For a group of 20 New York eighth graders, that’s exactly what they signed up for with the Summer Program of Mathematical Problem Solving sleep-away camp.

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Art of Problem Solving Foundation is a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide high quality mathematical resources to students in primary and secondary schools. The foundation sponsors the Summer Program of Mathematical Problem Solving – a free, three-week summer camp for underrepresented students from New York City middle schools. Under the watchful guidance of Director, Daniel Zaharopol, a math enthusiast and educator, the camp is held on the campus of Bard College in upstate New York. Students are exposed to advanced math concepts typically not covered in city schools. The program is designed to challenge the minds and build the skills of talented math students by introducing them to new concepts, interesting mathematical methods and encouraging them to pursue math learning independently. Zaharopol designs the curriculum so that it not only introduces kids to new math, but it fills voids in the students’ respective bodies of knowledge and provides a more solid foundation on which to build future math success. The hope is that by developing a program that appeals to their interest and piques their curiosity, students will be motivated to engage in competitions and seminars where low-income students are noticeably underrepresented.

Each student is entering the eighth grade in a school where 75% of the student body qualifies for the free lunch program. The admissions process is competitive. Nine school administrators nominate six students from each of their schools to participate in the program after which students meet with camp coordinators to ask questions and participate in informal interviews. Participants typically know within a few weeks if they’ve been selected to participate in the camp.

 

During the day, participants spend six hours engaged in math-centered activities, exploring mathematical concepts and learning the tricks of the trade, so to speak. Afterward, they are free to play sports, hike, spend time stargazing or in the computer lab, as well as enjoy a water park, a sculpture park and an opera(!). The camp provides valuable academic and social experience for underserved NYC students, as well as the opportunity for students to experience life on a college campus before they even get to high school. Students live in dorms and are separated by gender. Camp counselors are on-hand around the clock to oversee the students and provide assistance. The ratio of students to teachers is nicely proportioned at 2:1. Instructors are recruited through open job postings.

 

A Little About Daniel Zaharopol

Can you share what was your motivation and who influenced you to do your degrees in mathematics?

My general interest in science and mathematics came from subscribing to Discover magazine as a young child. It allowed me to see all the different kinds of science that are out there, and to feel like I was a part of what was really being done.

My interest in mathematics was sparked by two summer programs that had a huge impact on me. The first was called the “Center for Talented Youth,” where I took a course that was labeled as computer science but was actually a mathematics course in disguise. I learned some lovely math that stuck with me for my whole life. The second was Canada/USA Mathcamp, which exposed me to my first “real” proof-based mathematics.

What attracted you to pursue a career in helping children with math?

One reason that math is appealing to me is because there are many hard problems to solve. I love hard problems. I realized that education, especially math education, was a hard problem where I could make a significant difference. It also has a nice symmetry, allowing me to give back for something that was fundamental to my own growth.

What is the most fascinating aspect of your career that you see will have an impact in society?

Education is all about the impact in society. I want to see where these students go, and what they do. That will be the impact.

In hindsight, what are some of the stumbling blocks that you observe confronting our youth in the pursuit of the S.T.E.M. fields? Also, how did you determine what college to attend…speak through your thought process and parent involvement?

There are two huge stumbling blocks. The first is that, too often, people don’t understand what science, engineering, and math really are. They see only what they experience in school, and too often what they experience is memorizing formulas to pass tests. There’s nothing like that when you’re really doing science or math, though. Instead, you’re trying to make discoveries, to understand something on a deeper level than anything else you can understand. It changed my life to see what astronomy really is. It would take us longer than humans have been on this planet to get to another star; they’re so far away that although they’re much bigger than the Earth, they’re just these little dots of light in the sky. But we can actually figure out so much from those little dots of light. We can measure how they move, just a tiny, tiny bit as the Earth moves around the sun, and find the distance to them from that. We can analyze the light coming from them, take it apart into its component pieces, and use that to figure out what the stars are made of. Everything fits together beautifully; you discover one little bit of knowledge, and you use that little bit of knowledge to discover something new, and you keep going out like that. Science in school never shows you how that works.

The second stumbling block is that people don’t think science is interesting, so no one gives it a fair chance. Who wants to take a risk learning science when their friends will make fun of them for it? But they’re missing out on a huge opportunity for their mind and for their life.

As far as college, I knew that I wanted to go to a school that would give me a great education and where folks weren’t afraid to love what they do. MIT had that. My parents supported me in everything I did, but I was very independent. I got my own books on different colleges (these days I’d just use the internet), and from the summer programs I went to I already knew people at these colleges to ask them what it was really like.