Guest post: Math is the Great Equalizer
This is a guest post by Dr. Mark Tomforde. Mark is an associate professor at the University of Houston and passionate about making mathematics at all levels more accessible to members of underrepresented groups. He runs a math outreach program, called CHAMP, for high school and middle school students in inner-city Houston. Mark is also a mentor in the Math Alliance, which encourages undergraduate math students from all backgrounds to pursue graduate study, and he is the faculty advisor to his department’s undergraduate math club, Pi Mu Epsilon chapter, and AMS graduate chapter. In addition, he is an active researcher and the author of over 40 peer-reviewed articles and publications.
I was very excited to see last week’s Atlantic article on BEAM and the excellent work of Daniel Zaharopol, as well as your follow-up post How do we make math enrichment less elitist? and the contribution by P.J. Karafiol about Math Circles of Chicago.
I’m writing to you let you know about our outreach program at the University of Houston. The mascot of the University of Houston is the Cougar, and our program is called the Cougars and Houston Area Math Program (CHAMP).
CHAMP primarily serves the Third Ward and Sunnyside. These communities are immediately adjacent to the university, and they suffer from poverty, unemployment, recreational drug use, and violent crime. In fact, the Third Ward / Sunnyside neighborhood is among the lowest income neighborhoods in America as well as one of the most dangerous areas in the U.S., with 1 out of 11 people the victim of a violent crime each year. (This is more dangerous than any neighborhood in New York, L.A., or Detroit, and only Baltimore has the dubious distinction of more dangerous neighborhoods.) There are thousands of children and young people in the The Third Ward / Sunnyside area as well as multiple public and charter high schools (some of which serve over a thousand students) and many middle and elementary schools.
For 11 weeks each semester, two days per week after school, CHAMP brings students from local neighborhoods to the university of Houston campus for math lessons and tutoring. The high school students participating in CHAMP are all minorities (black or hispanic) and approximately two-thirds are women. We currently work primarily with KIPP Sunnyside high school and serve approximately 20 to 30 high school students at each of our meetings.
One day per week CHAMP provides lessons for the high school students in a style similar to a Math Circle, with a different instructor each week introducing such topics as Mobius bands, logic puzzles, game theory, non-Euclidean geometry, or basic group theory. We use discovery based learning, give a variety of low-floor, high-ceiling problems, and help the students build communication skills by having them explain their findings at the board. University of Houston undergraduates and graduate students volunteer to serve as facilitators, and each works with a group of two or three high school students to answer questions and provide guidance during the lessons.
On the other day each week CHAMP provides tutoring, allowing the high school students to work on either math homework or SAT/ACT preparation. The tutors are all volunteers from the University of Houston, and we make a special effort to recruit from the UH Chapter of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars (NSCS), the UH Chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), and teachHOUSTON (a UH program training undergraduates to be high school STEM teachers).
Each week we post materials from our lessons, as well as photos showing the students in action. You can see this semester’s lesson materials and photos here and also past semesters’ lesson materials and photos here. I think the photos, in particular, show how excited and positive the students are about their mathematical experiences in CHAMP. There is also a video of CHAMP describing some of our successes.
Bringing the students to the University of Houston campus has several benefits. First, the students get to see what a college campus is like. Second, since many of our facilitators and tutors are minorities or women, the students are exposed to role models and mentors, and they have the chance to see successful college students, many of whom are majoring in STEM subjects, that look like them and come from similar backgrounds. We also regularly hold discussions at the lessons in which the students can ask the facilitators questions about college life. In fact, one day we unexpectedly had only female high school students show up for a CHAMP lesson, due to some kind of after school sports try-outs that day of which we were unaware. We decided to use this opportunity, and scrapped our planned lesson to instead have an impromptu discussion on being a woman in math and science. The discussion was led by our female CHAMP facilitators, who are all successful women majoring in STEM fields at the University of Houston. The high school women asked questions touching on a number of important topics, and (without using the exact terms) they addressed issues related to lack of role models, stereotype threat, and the need to find allies when pursuing a STEM career. You can see photos from this CHAMP meeting here.
CHAMP has not only provided several benefits to the high school students, but also to the university students who volunteer. Moreover, these interactions have provided wonderful ways for the university to connect with the community. I have been asked by the high schools to use my university contacts to help find judges for local high school science fairs, to have university representatives host booths at high school college fairs, and –most recently– to give a seminar to high school teachers and parents on best practices in building math skills.
CHAMP has been running for three years, and we’ve grown throughout this time. We expanded from one day per week to our current two, we have increased the number of high school students we serve, and we have established pipelines for recruiting volunteers. At the same time, there have been many setbacks: difficulties getting the high school students to campus, the city of Houston closing the primary high school we partnered with so that we had to scramble to connect with another, and the difficulties of running the program with very little financial support.
We currently serve approximately 25 high school students, and this past year we were supported by a $5,500 MAA Tensor-SUMMA grant that we use to provide T-shirts, food, and transportation for the students. We also raise money through donations, which help us tremendously. We would like to expand CHAMP to more students. We just started a pilot program sending a few university students to a local middle school for math tutoring, and we would like to send a larger number of tutors next year. In addition, we want to bring more high school students to our twice-weekly meetings on campus. We have the space, as well as the facilitators and tutors to do this — our only obstacle is transportation to take the high school students to and from our campus. For this, we need more money.
Mathematics plays a special role in educational mobility. Many communities have state-mandated tests that must be passed for a student to graduate from high school. In underserved neighborhoods, it is often the math portion of these exams that present the largest obstacle to graduation. In addition, the standardized tests used for college admissions (PSAT, SAT, and ACT) largely focus on two sets of skills: English and Math. These tests are often primary factors in college/university admissions as well as in determining scholarships, access to honors programs, and other benefits a student will receive. On top of all this, studies have shown that math skills entering college are highly correlated with successful retention and graduation in STEM subjects (e.g., a freshman engineering student who has never had a chemistry or physics class but has good math skills will be much more successful than an entering college student who had high school courses in science and engineering but needs to take remedial math). Quality mathematics education can improve high school graduation rates, help students get into a better college with more support, and improve the chances of success for students majoring in STEM fields.
Universities are particularly well suited to help with the K-12 mathematics education in their communities — particularly those universities in areas near underserved schools systems (e.g., in large cities, areas of rural poverty, or near Native American reservations). Too often universities exist within a bubble, disconnected from their surrounding community. By looking beyond the bounds of the campus and engaging the surrounding K-12 schools, universities have a unique opportunity to improve the quality of their neighborhoods by educating those most in need. This involvement in the local community is not ancillary to a university’s educational mission, but rather central to it.
In the Atlantic article mentioned earlier, Daniel Zaharopol eloquently said “[Math ability] is spread pretty much equally through the population, and we see there are almost no low-income, high-performing math students. So we know that there are many, many students who have the potential for high achievement in math but who have not had opportunity to develop their math minds, simply because they were born to the wrong parents or in the wrong zip code.”
In my opinion, this is one of the greatest tragedies of the modern age. Imagine the loss of potential that is caused through this social inequity. What if the next Einstein or the next Steve Jobs or the person capable of curing cancer is born in poverty and attends an under-resourced school in inner city America? Their potential contributions will most likely be lost. It a frightening thought, and yet surely this must be happening all the time. The fact it happens in our own communities, within miles of where we live in work, should be additionally troublesome for those of us living in the first world.
On top of that, consider our primary objective in mathematics and STEM: To solve problems. Anyone who is regularly engaged in problem solving knows the usefulness of thinking outside the box and coming up with unconventional ideas. People from different background and with different experiences bring new perspectives and contribute novel approaches to problems. And yet, we have created a system in which only a homogenous group of individuals (often white men from certain types of socioeconomic backgrounds) ever have the chance to work on these problems. If we are actually interested in solving our problems, this just doesn’t make sense. We need to make access to education and careers in STEM fields available to everyone, so that we can benefit from the full strength and entire range of contributions that come from all members of our society.
Thanks again for your blog post describing the need for math programs to be more accessible to all students. It is a conversation more of us in the math world should be having.
If you know of anyone who would like to donate to CHAMP or volunteer to help with lessons or tutoring, please refer them to the CHAMP website: www.math.uh.edu/champ
Dr. Mark Tomforde
Associate Professor of Mathematics at the University of Houston
Director of CHAMP