At This Summer Camp, Students Eat and Sleep Math

The Summer Program in Mathematical Problem Solving (SPMPS), which was recently profiled by 'The New York Times', is as academically-oriented as its name suggests. This isn't a camp for kids who want to play kickball or make lanyards, nor is it focused on remedial math. This is a camp for high-achieving math students hoping to hone their skills.

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A Different Kind of Camp

For three weeks this summer, 17 kids attended SPMPS at Bard College, which is a little more than halfway towards Albany, north of New York City. All of the campers had just completed 7th grade at schools where at least 75% of the students receive a free lunch. While the kids were from urban, low-income households, the camp found them living in dorms and working in college classrooms on the idyllic, residential Bard campus.

The free camp doesn't just offer city kids a view of the scenic Catskill Mountains. They're there to explore their passion for mathematics. All of the kids, who were recommended by their teachers, had exhibited a proclivity for mathematics and the potential to be leaders in the field among their peers.

Once at SPMPS, the kids spent around seven hours each day on mathematics. They worked on problem-solving, computer programming and advanced math skills. Among the advanced topics they covered were voting theory and the relationship between math and the arts. Their instructors included highly-regard teachers and mathematicians from diverse backgrounds, including Dr. Arturo Portnoy, a math professor from the University of Puerto Rico and the director of the Puerto Rico Mathematical Olympiads.

Diversifying Math

SPMPS is funded by the Art of Problem Solving Foundation, which also supports math circles for middle and high school students in cities throughout the country. Unlike the math circles, SPMPS targets students who are otherwise underrepresented among groups for stellar math students. The camp helps students whose home schools lack the resources to provide the type of foundation and rigorous ongoing challenge in mathematics that more affluent schools offer.

The camp gives these students the opportunity to push themselves academically and find out if a career in advanced mathematics is appealing. If so, it has the potential to help a field that has traditionally lacked diversity. In general, professional mathematics has severely lacked the presence of women, people from low-income backgrounds and people of color. By offering students a camp like SPMPS, that problem may be mitigated over time.

Not Just Studying

The students at the camp spend an unusual amount of time relative to their peers working on math during the summer. But it's not all books and calculators. There is structured social time and free time built into each day's schedule. The students also have the option to take field trips on the weekends. These include whitewater rafting, hiking and other outdoor activities that ensure the kids lead rich and full lives.

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