Standing in front of 50 middle school students, CSU Monterey Bay Professor Hongde Hu demonstrated the solution to a math problem as though he were decoding the collective wisdom of the universe.
The class was part of the annual Algebra Academy sponsored by Graniterock, which took place over the students’ winter break. Youngsters from Aromas and Rolling Hills middle schools volunteered to attend.
Four days of classes were held at the company’s corporate headquarters in Watsonville. The fifth day, a Friday, saw the students visit CSUMB, where they spent time in a math classroom playing a game called “Survivor: Math Camp” that called on the skills they learned earlier in the week.
They also got a tour of campus, had lunch in the dining hall and learned what they have to do to prepare for college.
The academy concluded on Jan. 5 back in Watsonville with a graduation ceremony and awards presentation to the top 10 students. Watsonville Mayor Lowell Hurst attended.
For the third year, Graniterock provided the class materials, stipends for the teaching assistants and snacks for the students. CSUMB provided the instructors, four teaching assistants and the curriculum. Dr. Hu supplied the energy and enthusiasm to captivate the middle schoolers.
After Friday’s session, he proudly pointed out how quickly the students absorbed the lessons, covering review material in two days, and then going on to new material. “It was a great group of students,” he said. “They got it from the first day.” That allowed him to present material he called a “stretch,” high school-level concepts he introduced to give them an idea of the fun that’s in store if they stick with the subject.
“It gives them momentum for when they go back to their regular classroom,” he said.
Rolling Hills math teacher Nicholas Bugayong, who has helped with the academy for the last three years, has seen a noticeable difference in his students when they return to his class.
“They can go a lot faster,” he said. “They have something to pull from.” A comparison of pre-course and post-course assessment tests confirmed that; student scores improved 25.8 percent.
Dr. Hu said his job is to inspire students, to show them they can crack the mysteries of math. He’s quick to add that he’s not just teaching math. “We are teaching habits of mind,” he said. “I want to make these students good citizens as well as good students.
New research examining 24,000 students in two dozen California school districts finds that students already doing well in math in the seventh grade are more likely to take advanced math courses in high school and meet college entrance requirements.
But for many students who struggle with math in grade seven, there is no clear path to learning and achievement. Dr. Hu uses math games, engaging presentations and curriculum he has been refining for years to reach those youngsters.
Students who fail algebra and repeat the course are likely to fail again, a vicious cycle that wastes learning time and resources. That’s according to a study that was commissioned by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd and released in November. The Sacramento nonprofit focuses on policies and practices to improve teaching. (Read the WestEd report here.)
And that reinforces a point Dr. Hu makes every chance he gets.
Algebra is “the gateway” to studies in college, he says. “Without it, there’s no way students continue.”