Featured Stories

A Summer Math Haven for New York City Children

SPMPS combines classroom learning with a variety of activities.
Here, students play charades between morning and afternoon classes.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, a middle school student arriving for the first time on Bard’s campus exclaimed, "This is where I'm going to college!" The visitor was among 38 rising eighth graders who came to Bard to devote themselves to an unusual pursuit for summer vacation: mathematics. They came from 19 underserved middle schools in the New York City metro area, and were nominated by their own teachers to participate in the Summer Program for Mathematical Problem Solving (SPMPS). This is the third summer in which students have spent three weeks living on campus and taking the rigorous course in mathematical thinking.

Erin Toliver
Erin Toliver's class discusses the Four-Color Theorem.

SPMPS provides low-income students with free access to the kinds of immersive academic summer programs in which their more affluent peers participate. Dan Zaharopol is executive director of the Art of Problem Solving Foundation, which runs the program. “Students tell us that the program changes their views of mathematics and of themselves,” he says. SPMPS gives students a necessary boost for admission to competitive high schools and, eventually, colleges. The program helps alumni/ae select high schools during eighth grade. Last year most graduates went on to selective schools, including five students who enrolled in the Bard High School Early Colleges (BHSECs) in Manhattan and Queens.

Sage Moore
Sage Moore works with students in Circuits.

A typical day for a SPMPS student includes six hours of math instruction in courses such as Problem Solving, Logic, and Digital Communications. The students share meals, play games, and participate in activities ranging from painting to math competitions. Visiting mathematicians also come to speak to the group. “We learn a lot of things that I don’t think I would have learned in school,” says Crisleidy, 12. In Graph Theory, instructor (and Bard alumna) Erin Toliver '00 narrates the history of the Four-Color Theorem, as students hold up cutouts of the mathematicians who are part of the story. In Circuits, students crowd around instructor Sage Moore and a pile of electronic parts, as they work on building a binary calculator from scratch.

Teachers from the partner schools recommend SPMPS students based on their aptitude for math. Participants arrive at Bard looking for a challenge. Thirteen-year-old Christian, from Williamsburg, explains, “Usually in school I get bored in class, but here they make it interesting, so I stay focused.” Christian admits that, in his school, he often receives an easy assignment, completes it, and then just “sits back and relaxes” in class. SPMPS is, by contrast, a challenge that leaves him thinking about math all day, “Even if I’m in an activity, I still keep on thinking about a problem I was given in class.”

Painting Class
A painting activity gives participants a change of pace between longer mathematics courses.

SPMPS goals are in line with Bard College’s broader mission of education reform. Bard and SPMPS “have the same DNA,” remarks Bard math professor Japheth Wood. Students “spend a life-changing summer at Bard College,” he says, “truly a ‘place to think’ for them.” The program is connected to the undergraduate college and to the Master of Arts in Teaching program (MAT). In addition to Erin Toliver, who returned this summer for her third year, alumni/ae Jeff Pereira '13 and Rachel "Shelley" Stahl '08 also work in the program. Both Pereira and Stahl were leaders in the Bard Math Circle, an ongoing volunteer program in which Bard undergraduates teach local students. The MAT program shares its network of New York City partner schools with SPMPS. MAT students have also been involved as summer tutors and as program liaisons in the schools.

Janequa, 13

Teachers recommend about twice as many applicants as SPMPS can currently accommodate. Conversation among staff and faculty at SPMPS, Bard, and the partner schools revolves around how to best expand the program into after-school settings or more summer camps in new locations. SPMPS plans to open a second site next year.

In the meantime, this year’s cohort is enthusiastic and confident in their abilities. Janequa, 13, of Manhattan, says, “The math here is challenging. Everybody in the program has a high potential to do it. I think, since we made it into the program, we all just have something about math that we like. We can accomplish any problem that is handed to us.”

Post Date: 08-06-2013