Saturday, August 02, 2003

Bring on the Problems? It Must Be Math Camp(NYT)

Here's a story that offers an interesting perspective on the whole affirmative-action debate:

WHEN Dr. Max Warshauer puts together his high-powered math camp for top high school students each summer, he selects several campers with perfect 1600 SAT's. "We turned away a 1570 SAT this year, because there were three stronger students at the same high school," Dr. Warshauer said.

Many are like Will Nygard, who, by sophomore year, had finished Calculus 2, the toughest math course at his high school in Coronado, Calif. Will got a top score of 5 on the AP calculus test, but says, "Until math camp, I never really understood what calculus was."

Dr. Warshauer needs a very bright staff to challenge such campers, and several of his counselors are math majors from M.I.T., Stanford and Harvard. Each camp day here at Southwest Texas State University is chock full of math. They start with an 8:30 a.m. lecture on numbers theory by Dr. Warshauer (instantly recognizable from his Bermuda shorts, black socks, black tie shoes and corny jokes) and finish each night with a four-hour problem-solving session that often goes past 10 p.m.


It is impressive that so much math does not seem like too much math for these young people. "Too much math? Oh no," Will Boney of Austin said. "I just love the way you can take a couple of math problems, sit down and occupy yourself intellectually for a long time."

Across the country, there are a handful of such elite math programs, most run by students of the late Arnold Ross, who directed summer math camps at Notre Dame and Ohio State for 45 years, until retiring in 2000 at the age of 94.

Dr. Warshauer fell in love with math for good at the Ohio State camp in the summer of 1967, and for that reason has never given up the struggle to raise the scholarship money to keep his own camp afloat these last 14 years. While he takes students from top private and public schools, he also hunts the brightest ones from small towns and inner cities, children who have never met anyone like themselves until they get to math camp. Elite math programs have been criticized as too white and too male, but half of Dr. Warshauer's 50 campers are female, a third are black or Latino.

As a ninth grader, Margaret McKee wrote in her camp application that she had to get out of Sulphur Springs, Tex., where "boys study science and play football" and "girls keyboard and do high kicks."

"My last two science teachers," she wrote, "have made it a point to let the class know that they do not believe in the theory of evolution because it conflicts with their fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible."

Dr. Warshauer took one look at that essay, and said, "We have to take this girl."


In the final week of camp, Dr. Warshauer takes aside the seniors and asks where they are applying to college. Last summer Shamika Walker told him Howard Payne University in Brownwood, Tex., because it was inexpensive and not too far from home.

Shamika was raised in San Antonio by her mother, a mail carrier. "Money was always tight," she said. "We grew up on the low side of San Antonio, living check to check. So I'd shy away from expensive things like ballet lessons. Math was something I could do in my room."

Dr. Warshauer told her: "I don't know much about Howard Payne. I'm sure it's fine, but you ought to be thinking about Harvard and Stanford."

She said, "They don't want regular people like me," but what she was thinking was, "If Max says so. . . ."

Back home last fall, Shamika filled out her college applications on her own. "My mom's attitude is: 'I'm out of school. I don't remember any of that stuff.' " When Shamika stayed up past midnight working on the essays, her mother would yell: "Come to bed. Nothing's that important."

But something was. In a few weeks Shamika Walker leaves San Antonio for Stanford. She is a little frightened. When she visited the campus in Palo Alto, she noticed all the expensive cars. But she has been to math camp. She knows that Charles Hallford of Brady and Marisol Castillo of San Antonio have done well at Stanford, and Dr. Warshauer has told her, "Shamika, you'll do great, too."

Given that this appeared in the New York Times, the racial angle was obviously to be expected - why is it important to stress that "a third are black or Latino?" - but the article does make clear that there can be real benefits to attempts to reach out to members of marginal groups, provided that 'outreach' is not interpreted as mere number counting. How many of the Ann Coulters and Pat Buchanans of the world, coming as they do from well-off backgrounds, can imagine what it is like to be told by one's own mother "Come to bed. Nothing's that important"?