Five weeks of intensive math education may not be the first option that jumps to mind when thinking about summer vacations. But that’s exactly how 16 students from Digital Harbor High School spent a large portion of their summer break.
The students were starting a year-long STEM Core program – an intensive, personalized course that helps students build their math skills and prepare for STEM careers. The program is a joint effort by Growth Sector, Baltimore City Public Schools, Baltimore City Community College (BCCC), the Abell Foundation and the Fort Meade Alliance.
Five days a week for five weeks, the students worked their way through BCCC’s Algebra 1 prep course.
“It was very intense,” said Petal Sumner, a mathematics professor and Mathematics Transfer Coordinator at BCCC. “But we didn’t write on the board all day. Students worked in groups, we did some games and, in the afternoons, we had speakers or projects or other activities.”
Those afternoon sessions were carefully selected to show students the relevance of algebra and other mathematics to careers they might want to pursue. Students toured the Mission Design Lab at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. They worked on a web project, engineered straw bridges and spent an afternoon learning the fundamental role math plays in music.
“You are really hearing math when you hear music,” said Aaron Hill, a Baltimore-based musician, keyboardist and producer. “It’s math coming through a different vehicle, a different expression.”
Hill, who has taught music at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and Glenelg Country School, uses a computer and keyboards to fuel students’ love of music and appreciation for the mathematics within it. Simple arithmetic equations can make up a basic melody. But as harmonies, vocals, different instruments and even shifting tempos are added to a composition, varied equations keep layering on top of each other and form a complex numerical structure.
“The better you are at math, the better you are at putting together the building blocks of music,” Hill said. “The funny thing is I have always been really good at math. It was my number one subject in school. So when I got into music in my late teens, early 20s…my math sense and analytical abilities allowed me to take hold of music really fast.”
The STEM Core program will continue throughout the students’ school year. Its specialized math instruction, which includes two sessions each week with Sumner, is designed to get students through BCCC’s Algebra 2 course and prepare them to tackle college-level calculus by the time the graduate next spring.
Through projects, speakers and field trips, the students will also get regular opportunities to interact with individuals working in STEM fields.
“Many students that we are working with have never been exposed to computer science or engineering or even understand what those fields are about. They don’t know how the things they learn in class cross over into those careers,” said Caz Pereira, a Director of Growth Sector, a California nonprofit dedicated to bringing together employers, community colleges, governments and foundations to create pathways to high wage jobs for disadvantaged Americans. “So it’s invaluable to give students exposure to fields they have never encountered before. It really gives them a heads up on what their future can look like.”