New SUNY Oswego math camp seen as plus for science students

A new summer math camp at SUNY Oswego aimed to solve a problematic equation: college-level mathematics classes that may complicate the progress of students in the science and engineering fields.

SUNY Oswego Faculty Fellow Shashi Kanbur coordinated a $600,000 National Science Foundation grant that launched the math camp while providing $4,000 scholarships to 14 new and 14 returning students pursuing a degree in the STEM (science, technology, engineering or math) fields. Incoming students receiving the scholarships attended the pilot class.

The immersive three-week summer program was geared more toward interaction and problem-solving than traditional lecturing, Associate Provost Rameen Mohammadi said.

“We want to help them with their prerequisites and also help build their confidence for the next level,” said Jack Narayan, distinguished teaching professor of mathematics, who led the sessions with Preety Tripathi, assistant professor of mathematics. “I think one of the big drivers of success is learning and believing you can do something.”

After Charles Spector, chair of the college’s accounting, finance and law department, learned of the initiative, he garnered support to send four freshman accounting majors to the camp, as math can also be a stumbling block for these majors.

Working together

The group would think and work through posed problems together. For one problem—“Would all living humans fit in Lake Ontario?”—students had to calculate volume of the lake, number of people on earth, average size of a human and other factors while using mathematics concepts like probability and estimation.

“These students were taught in a project-based, group-based, problem-based environment,” Mohammadi said. “There is no doubt that active learning works well in the learning process.”

The course unfolded as a comprehensive learning experience, including tips on diet, exercise and study habits with “mathematics in relation to other disciplines, mathematics in relation to life and mathematics as a tool for solving problems,” Narayan said. “Math is hard work, but it’s fun when you get to know how to do it.” 

For a final project, students each tackled a particular problem and gave a presentation on how they worked through it.

Happy campers

While students at first did not know what to make of the prospect of attending a summer math camp, SUNY Oswego freshman zoology major Katrina Debaun said once the program began they saw benefits in the work sessions and guest presentations.

“Different people from different departments came in and talked about their research and the possibilities in their fields. It really opened our eyes about what Oswego has to offer,” Debaun said.

“The students looked like they were having a good time,” Mohammadi said. “If you can get students to enjoy mathematics, that’s a great thing.”

Narayan said the vast majority of students showed marked improvement between pre-class testing and testing after the camp, most testing up at least one level—which could mean starting in calculus or pre-calculus instead of algebra, for example.

“They can make much quicker progress toward their degree by starting at a higher level of math,” Mohammadi noted. “If they get the foundation, you can help move them toward the career they want to pursue.”

Debaun, a Possibility Scholar and Oswego High School graduate, said she has always done well at math but that the summer program paid additional dividends. “It’s helped a lot. I’ve only had three math classes so far this semester, but it’s already clicking,” she said in early September.

“It also helped in the social aspect because we all still hang out together,” Debaun said of her math camp classmates. They also got to know the campus, and have found themselves assisting new students trying to navigate their first days of college, she added.

Mohammadi said administrators would like to find ways to expand the program, which would entail trying to solve resource constraints. The program’s positive start will help, but its true impact remains a long-term measurement.

“If these students persist, year after year, both in their disciplines and at the college, that will show the ultimate success of the program,” Mohammadi said. “The goal is to keep students in the sciences. Obviously, the result so far is very promising.”

(Posted: Sep 16, 2011)

Tags: solutions, education pipeline