On a hot, summer day, 11 students took turns standing in front of a screen covered with a dizzying amount of lines and numbers. The audience nodded in appreciation as the students spoke of their findings in mathematical graph theory—or using graphs to understand the relationship between structures.
The presenters were not graduate students, or even upperclassmen. They were high school students from the inner-city schools of Chicago, at Illinois State to take part in the annual Mathematics Research Academy.
Nicknamed Math Camp, the weeklong academy allows high school students from the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to learn about mathematics … and a bit about themselves in the process.
“This was better than I ever expected,” said junior Fahd Filaoui from Carl Schruz High School. “This week has changed everything. I now think of math as everywhere.”
The students spent the week of July 13–17 working on complex math problems with Illinois State faculty and participants of the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Site at Illinois State.
“These are high school students doing original research in mathematics, and they were only with us for a week. They are doing extraordinary things here,” said Distinguished Professor of Mathematics Saad El-Zanati, who helped to start the REU Site at Illinois State in 2007, and co-organizes the academy each year.
Students are nominated by principals and counselors in schools that work with the University’s Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline, an intensive program that connects Illinois State student-teachers with urban schools in Chicago.
Math teacher Katy Spencer ’12 took part in the Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline programs while attending Illinois State. Now she organizes bringing CPS students to the Math Camp at her alma mater. A teacher at Schurz High School, Spencer said she loves the possibilities students discover at the academy.
“These students are exposed to a world outside the city. It exposes them to college, and it gives them the confidence to believe they can attend college,” she said.
Former academy student Jesse Williams said he had no plans to attend a four-year college before he came to the academy in 2013.
“I was limiting myself,” said Williams, “but when I came, I saw how great the faculty were here, it was enough to win me over.”
Now a sophomore math education major at Illinois State, Williams returned to Math Camp this summer to serve as a chaperone for Chicago students.
“Now I can tell these guys to not limit themselves,” he said.
Students work in groups throughout the week to tackle a mathematical research problem. At the end of the week, students made a presentation to a room full of REU participants, university leaders, and members of the areas that support the program—the Department of Mathematics, the Center for Mathematics, Science, and Technology (CeMaST), and the Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline.
“I was a lot less nervous than I thought I would be, but we had the chance to zoom through a lot of practice together,” said Devin Buckley, a senior from Simeon High School, who presented a result using proof by contradiction. Buckley noted the experience gave him the chance to see mathematics in a new light.
“Math is never like this at school, with no chance to question. This is different,” he said.
CPS teacher Esther Song, who also served as one of the REU mentors for the students, said the camp delves into mathematical aspects that can rarely be covered in high school.
“Math classes give you such a small perspective of what math is, what it can be,” said Song, who teaches at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. “Through the camp, students can broaden their perspective, and explore their mathematical identity.”
Finding new insights and passing on what is learned is key to Math Camp, said El-Zanati.
“I have heard some of these students say they will continue this work when they return home, even though it is not part of their school work,” El-Zanati said. “For a teacher, it is the ultimate gift to hear a student say that.”
Rachel Hatch can be reached at rkhatch@IllinoisState.edu.