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New York City Middle Schoolers Dive Deeply into Math at Bard Summer Program

Image: Courtesy Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics
By Hannah Fassett ‘17

“Today, you wrote your first proof like real mathematicians,” says Javier Ronquillo. “Isn’t that cool?” Cheers erupt, followed by giggles and chatter, as a dozen middle school students in Hegeman 308 pack up their notebooks and head out onto Ludlow lawn. After dispersing to various activities on and off campus, they will rejoin their teachers for dinner at Kline Commons and continue to discuss lingering questions and puzzles from the day’s class.

Javier Ronquillo, a Ph.D. student in mathematics at Ohio University, and his teaching assistant, Bard rising junior Kaylynn Tran ‘18, teach Counting Without Counting in the Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM) program at Bard. For three weeks every summer, a group of rising eighth graders from New York City enlivens Bard’s campus. The students have a high aptitude for mathematics, but come from low-income schools where they often cannot access advanced math courses. The BEAM program is tuition free, enabling underserved students to attend a rigorous academic program in a college setting. Daniel Zaharopol founded the program in 2011 under the name Summer Program in Mathematical Problem Solving, with 17 students attending. This summer marks BEAM’s sixth year partnering with Bard, with 40 students participating on Bard’s campus.  

BEAM student writingIn the fall of 2015, the Summer Program in Mathematical Problem Solving became the Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics, a shift reflecting the organization’s growth from a summer camp to a year-round mentoring program. Ayinde Alleyne, program coordinator and one of the Bard College site directors, notes how the mentoring aspect has become more robust, and now includes a four-week program in New York City in the summer after sixth grade. “We want to expand the opportunities we can offer students and the success they can achieve by exposing them to advanced mathematics earlier,” he explains. Following their summer at BEAM, Alleyne takes interested students to an Open House for the Bard High School Early Colleges (BHSECs) in Queens and Manhattan. This is part of BEAM’s five-year support plan, which includes helping students develop a personalized high school action plan and providing college application assistance. From BEAM’s most recent class of graduating eighth graders, 10 students will attend the BHSECs in Manhattan and Queens. Since the program’s inaugural summer, 27 BEAM alumni/ae have matriculated into the BHSECs.

Two BEAM students studyingAttending BEAM provides the students with an experience outside of the city in which, as Alleyne explains, they can “own the space,” develop their intellectual skills, and broaden their social world. This summer, there are 40 students each at Bard and at Vassar College. BEAM expanded their summer program to a second college site in 2014 to accommodate greater enrollment. The students live in college dorms and share meals at the dining halls with faculty and counselors. At the onset of each week, students choose from a number of advanced topics such as Number Theory and Computer Programming with Mathematica. In a given day, the students attend seven hours of classes, with activity breaks ranging from baking and crafts to soccer and chess. BEAM offers weekend field trips to Six Flags, water park and hiking adventures, and, this year, a trip to the Fisher Center for a dress rehearsal of the SummerScape opera, Iris. Milani, a rising eighth grader from East Side Community High School, explains, “every experience I’ve had here is going to be a memory, because everything is new.”

BEAM maintains a connection to Bard’s undergraduate program by hiring currents students and alumni/ae for the summer program. Tejaswee Neupane, who spent the summer of 2011 on Bard’s campus as one of the original cohort, will be returning to pursue her undergraduate degree at Bard this fall. BEAM faculty include Bard alumna Rachel “Shelley” Stahl ‘08 and Ronquillo’s T.A. and current Bard math major Kaylynn Tran. Tran initially heard about BEAM through a former BEAM counselor and further explored the program through Bard’s Career Development Office. The experience has inspired her to join Bard Math Circle this upcoming academic year, where she will volunteer to teach math enrichment to local elementary and middle school students.

BEAM FrisbeeBEAM provides students with methods of approaching math that expand on and complicate the Common Core middle school curricula. In the interview process, many students admit that they find school boring because the course work does not challenge them and “everyone’s disruptive in class.” Once they arrive at BEAM, students are, often for the first time, “surrounded by people who love learning.” While developing critical thinking skills, BEAM students share the experience with like-minded students from similar backgrounds. Milani explains, “When I got here, I just started to get comfortable. I am surrounded by people who are like me.” Her peers nod adamantly, their faces recalling the excitement they shared with Ronquillo over their first proofs.

Akriti, a student from I.S. 77 in Queens explains that “in school we learn to do math [with] speed,” whereas at BEAM the students learn how to approach complex questions with deliberation and patience. Alleyne sees the core of BEAM’s mission as “teaching students how to think about problems,” a skill that extends beyond the classroom into their high school experiences and eventual career paths. Akriti is already thinking about high school and considering BHSEC.

BEAM’s mission is often expressed through the question “Why?”—a favorite classroom term in the program. Beyond finding a solution, faculty push students to look at the context of their answer, and to ask themselves how and why they found it. For Akriti, BEAM has deepened her mathematical thinking, forcing her to ask: “Why does this happen? Why does this pattern continue?” She pauses, reflecting on math before BEAM, “We didn’t think deeply enough, we’d just say ‘it’s a pattern.’ I never went [this] deeply into thinking before.”
Post Date: 08-08-2016