SARDALLA-DAVIS: Math camp takes a fun approach to an often frustrating subject

May 22, 2013 

The words "fun" and "math" are not usually mentioned in the same sentence — but they were recently.

"They make math fun," said sixth-grader Nayeli Garcia. "It makes you want to come back."

Garcia was among the students at the second annual Spring Math Camp held April 1-5 at two sites for third- through sixth-graders in Stanislaus and Merced counties. The camp drew 53 students at Orville Wright Elementary in Modesto and 115 students at California State University, Stanislaus.

Incoming fourth- through eighth-graders will have a similar opportunity when CSUS offers the Summer Writing and Math Camp for Young Scholars weekdays June 3-14. It costs $400. Those interested can call (209) 667-3490 or email gvwp@csustan.edu.

"We've extended our work beyond teaching teachers to include the children in our community," said Carol Minner, director of the Great Valley Writing Project at CSUS. "We combined our writing and math summer camps to give students learning experiences they may not have during the school year."

At the Spring Math Camp, a game of hot potato energized third-graders to solve multiplication problems without pen and paper.

"I like it over here," said Tomas Calderon, 8. "We learned about fractions. We talked about our pets and favorite toys."

Juan Carlos, 12, came to prepare for the California State Test. "I didn't learn about pi and circumference at school, but they taught us that here," he said. "Math camp is a lot better than regular school."

Parent Silvia Klein said she and her husband had tried to explain math concepts to their son James, 8.

"We thought somebody with a different perspective could help him," she said. "He came home so happy. Math camp is a great idea."

Math camp is the brainchild of math education reformer and CSUS Professor Viji Sundar.

"We play math; we don't 'do' math," Sundar said.

Apart from the fun factor, math camp succeeds because of the closeness that develops between campers and coaches.

"If students respect us, they don't zone out," said coach John Dumaguing, a CSUS nursing student.

Coaches observe and then offer customized tips, unlike traditional tutors who assume a common level of knowledge and teach from there.

A teacher with empathy can change a student's life. Coach Veronica Chaidez credits a math teacher for seeing her potential. She overcame hurdles as a teen mom to enroll in the university's credential program.

"I wanted the kids to see that a math degree is at arm's reach because I have one and I was once in their shoes," Chaidez said.

The success of the camp hinges on its leadership — an alchemy of the passion and experience of the project director and the commitment of the coaches. Their collective enthusiasm reawakened a love for learning in participants.

Sardall-Davis is a freelance writer/editor with a decade of experience in public higher education.

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