Students find preparation, fun at Mathworks summer camp

By Marc Speir
University News Service
July 24, 2007

In an era of need for mathematics and science-based professionals, it is reassuring to know that people like Max Warshauer exist. The lenses of Warshauer’s glasses reflect sparkles in his eyes, revealing a childlike excitement for his math programs at Texas State University-San Marcos.

Exhibiting an equally apparent grin of wonderment, Warshauer doesn’t fit the image of the old cranky math professor.

“Its been my experience that math has to do with an elasticity of the mind,” said Jim Mangold, director of the K-12 science and mathematics programs at St. Michaels High School of the Navajo Nation. “Max and his peers aren’t (old cranks) because they are doing great things here.”

Mangold traveled from the Arizona-based Navajo Nation to study the Mathworks program at Texas State. He plans to implement a pilot curriculum program at his school this fall. Similar pilot projects originating from Mathworks are based in New Braunfels, Dallas and McAllen, with ongoing discussions for a San Marcos program.

“The power of a camp like this is that it shows math is everywhere,” Mangold said. “All advanced learning in science is based on it.” 

Mangold isn’t alone in his interest, with 55 high-school students from around the nation visiting the Mathworks program this summer for a period of six weeks. The level of math the students work on solving is on par with those found in undergraduate and graduate courses of mathematics.

In its 18th year at Texas State, the program attracts what Warshauer calls “the cream of the crop.”

“The students are amazing, and each year we have counselors returning from Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Rice, UT and Texas State. Our counselors are former participants who set the tone for the entire program,” Warshauer said.  “Many are continuing to get Ph.D.s in math, science, and engineering.”

Students invited to attend Mathworks stay in a dormitory on campus, taking classes by day and working in study groups by night.

In the morning and afternoon classroom sessions, students examine number theory, mathematical layout and problem solving techniques. In evenings from 6 to 10 o’clock, the learning takes on a concerted effort.

“The study groups allow them to work as a team,” Warshauer said. “Students compute examples, make conjectures, and discover the theorems behind the patterns they observe.”

Each study group contains three to four campers and a counselor. This summer the program contains 14 study groups and mentors to accommodate the 55 campers.

Counselors are usually former campers, excited at the prospect of guiding younger pupils as role models. Andrew Hsiau is in his seventh summer at Mathworks, attending as a student for two sessions and mentor for five. The recent biomedical engineering graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., says that the Mathworks program helps prepare students for rigorous courses by approaching mathematics from a different angle.

“There is a definitive answer in math but no definitive process--there are many ways to get the same answer,” Hsiau said. “At Mathworks, the students get the experience of working together on a common goal without just getting a lecture--we have them discover the rules.”

Counselor Ben Salinas says that proving the rules of mathematics by discovering how they work is an important concept that most schools ignore.

“It becomes a game of filling in the blanks but not understanding why something is true,” said Salinas, an engineering design major at Olin College of Engineering in Boston, Mass. “It carries on beyond mathematics, it’s the ability to problem solve.”

Study groups are assigned complex projects, with problems that can take weeks at a time to solve. In this manner, Warshauer says the program sets itself apart.

“I like to think we model the program after the way (famous number theorist) Gauss discovered some of his theorems,” Warshauer said. “They can rediscover his methods, but for them it’s the first time.”

Campers agree that the style of learning is more progressive than what they’ve seen in the past.

“In middle school we learned this is how it works but we’re not allowed to ask why,” said Jean Shiao, camper from Plano Senior High School. “Here, we have to prove things and understand the background behind it.”

Advanced students work on research projects that correspond with real-world applications. In one group, graph theory is used in the field of epidemiology to model how a disease can spread across populations to predict or contain such as situation.

Another group examines how gas flow models using nano-particles can explain how long a bag of chips will remain fresh or go stale. Yet another group constructs financial analysis models to gauge the fluctuation of the stock market and make predictions for investors. Other topics covered range from game theory to cracking the mysteries of polynomials.

Students say the program will prepare them to take high-demand jobs in mathematics, computers or the sciences.

“I want to get into electrical engineering and make parts for computers,” said Eduardo Cepeda, camper from the Science Academy of South Texas in McAllen. “The rumor is, you need to know math,” a chuckling Cepeda said.

Other students say it comes down to a simple love for mathematics.

“I like the things inside my head more than the living things around me,” said Veronica Ray, camper from San Antonio’s Incarnate Word High School. “You can do a lot of complicated, interesting things with math.”

The Mathworks honors program will conclude July 27, upon which students plan to enter their research projects into the Siemens and Intel Research Competitions. Both Siemens and Intel sponsor scholarships for campers to participate in Mathworks. Other sponsors include the American Math Society Epsilon Fund and the Kodosky Foundation.