Can you imagine going to a “summer camp” only to find that the daily itinerary consists of spending six hours each day studying math? To me, this sounds absolutely awful, but for Mattie Williams and the 16 other students who are attending the Summer Program in Mathematical Problem Solving at Bard College, this is a reality they are very excited about. These 17 students view math as a competitive sport and enjoy spending their days solving complicated problems.
Williams and her fellow campers will all be starting eight grade in the NYC public school district in the fall, where 75 percent of the students receive free lunches due to financial need. So, when Williams was offered the chance to spend a few weeks of her summer studying math at Bard College, she jumped on the opportunity that might not have been available to her if it was not being financed by the Art of Problem Solving Foundation. This foundation is a nonprofit program that promotes math education for gifted students.
“These are students who have a tremendous amount of potential and are really ready for a lot more than they’re able to get in schools,” said the camp’s director, Daniel Zaharopol, who is a math teacher and has earned his master’s degree in mathematics. Zaharopol feels that this summer camp is a very valuable resources for this students. “If these students had just gone to the New York City Math Circle this summer, they would have felt like a fish out of water. They wouldn’t have the same mathematical background and experience as their peers.”
Although this program is offering these students a fantastic opportunity that they could not get elsewhere, there are still critics of the camp. Zvezdelina Stankova is a mathematics professor at Mills College and she thinks that although the program does help the students, it is not long enough to really have an impact on the students.
“Just like it takes years for a basketball player to develop themselves and get to the professional league, it’s the same for mathematicians,” Stankova said.
So maybe a few weeks of studying math at a summer camp will not be enough to turn these kids into mathematicians. However, the students are getting more than just a math education at this camp: they are building friendships and having a true camp experience.
“The first night we all sat in each other’s rooms and talked about what we wanted to do, and how, oh, I miss my mom, I miss my dad,” said Williams. “Then we had a pillow fight.”
It sounds like this really is a summer camp to me, even if they are studying math instead of paddling canoes or going for hikes. Who knows, maybe it will start a new trend?