In Class

February 13, 2017 at 8:20 am

Mathematics Doctoral Students Teach Young Scholars at Summer Camps

Headshot photo taken outdoors

Erik Hieta-aho spent his summer working for the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth.

Headshot taken outside.

Javier Ronquillo Rivera taught children at the Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics program.

by Kristin M. Distel

Erik Hieta-aho and Javier Ronquillo Rivera, doctoral students in the Mathematics Department, spent part of their summer teaching mathematics to middle school students.

Hieta-aho, who studies algebra and coding theory, worked at Loyola Marymount University as part of the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. Ronquillo Rivera, whose research focuses on topological groups, worked with children at a camp called Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics in New York state.

The program, Ronquillo Rivera explains, provides intensive mathematics tutoring to children from underserved areas of New York City.

While both Hieta-aho and Ronquillo Rivera taught mathematics to young scholars, their experiences were rewarding in distinct ways.

‘The Students Were Brilliant’

“I was the instructor of a course that had around 15 students,” Hieta-aho explains, “and I had a teaching assistant to help me with the class. The kids I taught were considered intensive study students, including many international attendees from China. Students range from fifth grade through 10th grade; there are approximately 500 students total in our program.”

Hieta-aho, who taught a three-week course on cryptology at the Center for Talented Youth, was amazed at his students’ intelligence and eagerness.

“They soaked up the information so well,” Hieta-aho notes. “The students were brilliant. They knew how to ask the right questions. I was teaching college-level mathematics to these young kids. It was almost a full college course in three weeks.”

Ronquillo Rivera’s experience with the Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics program was similar to a traditional internship, which he has held for two consecutive summers. He, too, spent three weeks at the camp for which he taught. He had 12 students in his class, and, like Hieta-aho, had a teaching assistant to help him with his duties.

“Selected students come to BEAM at the end of seventh grade. The program is a gateway in which they learn really cool mathematics. These are very talented kids, but they often do not have the strongest backgrounds because of the schools they come from.”

‘We Keep Nurturing Those Mathematics Skills’

What makes BEAM exceptional, Ronquillo Rivera notes, is the program’s efforts to monitor and encourage students’ progress after the summer has ended.

“BEAM follows up with students throughout their junior high and high school years. We keep nurturing those mathematics skills.” Interestingly, Ronquillo Rivera explains, some BEAM students eventually go on to attend the Center for Talented Youth, the program for which Hieta-aho worked. “Our goal is to help students gain admission into science-specific high schools, which are highly competitive,” Ronquillo Rivera says. “BEAM exists in order to help students navigate those complicated educational systems.”

Preparation, Planning, and Fun

Both Hieta-aho and Ronquillo Rivera found that their summer teaching experiences required a great deal of preparation and planning. Hieta-aho taught his students for three hours in the morning and another three hours in the afternoon, followed by a final session at 9 p.m., when students worked on mathematics problems to reinforce what they had learned that day. The evening session also could be used as designated reading time. Hieta-aho assigned his students a history book on cryptography, for example.

While the program is certainly rigorous for its students, Hieta-aho says, it also requires a significant amount of work from its instructors. “I worked between 60 and 80 hours during the first week to prepare for the three-week session,” he explains.

The Center for Talented Youth also has social events such as dances, Hieta-aho says. “There were even chess tables set up at the dances,” he notes. “The program is designed to promote social engagement among really brilliant children.”

By contrast, the class Ronquillo Rivera taught at BEAM met for four hours each morning and again for an hour each night to discuss that day’s lessons with the students. Ronquillo Rivera taught two courses during the summer term at BEAM, each of which lasted one week.

Innovative Curricula for Diverse, Young Scholars

Ronquillo Rivera praises the freedom BEAM gives its faculty to develop innovative curricula.

“The coordinators said, ‘Teach a class on whatever subject you want, so long as it pertains to mathematics.’ My first class was called ‘Count Without Counting,’ and the second was called ‘Mosaics, Symmetries, and ¿Dancing?.’ A lot of what we’re expected to do is to interact with the kids and build relationships with them. Most of the kids are racial or ethnic minorities, and more than half speak at least two languages. Many are the children of immigrants.”

An additional benefit of working for BEAM is the diverse nature of its faculty.

“The faculty teams are balanced; different minority groups are represented among teachers, teaching assistants, and students. There is also a 50-50 gender balance, so all students can have role models among faculty. We also led activities that have nothing to do with math—I led dancing and soccer, for example. The faculty also took the students hiking and on field trips to Six Flags. Some of these kids had never hiked or even been outside the city much.”

Obtaining a Strong Foundation at OHIO

Hieta-aho and Ronquillo Rivera found that their studies at OHIO helped prepare them for their teaching experiences.

“The area of cryptology that I taught at CTY is under the same umbrella as coding theory, my area of research,” Hieta-aho notes. “The key to explaining abstract concepts to students is having a deep understanding of my own.” Both Hieta-aho and Ronquillo Rivera, who work as teaching assistants at Ohio University, found that teaching undergraduates has given them the tools they need for effective classroom management. “That’s vital in a class of twelve to sixteen young students,” Ronquillo Rivera remarks.

Ronquillo Rivera, too, found that his research at OHIO lent itself to the teaching he did over the summer. “One of the classes I’ve been developing for BEAM is related to my research topic,” he notes. “My research helps me to understand concepts that I can then teach to others,” he says.

Ronquillo Rivera found that his work with “math circles” here at OHIO gave him some of the tools he needed to teach his classes at BEAM.

“I worked for the past couple of years with Bob Klein, Rebin Muhammad, and Rebecca Bycofski to develop the math circle,” Ronquillo Rivera notes. “We created mathematics-based activities for middle schoolers. This is a fun and approachable to teach deep mathematics.”

“We held math nights and played math games, and we even held a magic card game,” Hieta-aho explains. “The kids get excited, and so do the parents. In fact, the kids even teach the parents,” he remarks.

Bringing Newfound Skills Back to OHIO

“Overall,” Hieta-aho says, “my work at CTY taught me how to get students involved in the material. I learned that it’s really important to have students get their hands dirty with mathematics lessons. I had them do a scavenger hunt, for example, where they had to work in groups and break a code to get to the next message. It was a lot of fun!”

Ronquillo Rivera, too, took away invaluable lessons from his summer teaching experience. “Last year, after my first summer at BEAM, I taught an OHIO course for students who are going to become elementary schoolteachers. Having some experience with kids and seeing how they react to the material helped me guide my students and share those experiences with them.”

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