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MACS-imizing learning: Cortez students spend week at CSU summer camp

June 9, 2014
Kortny Rolston

Thirteen students and two teachers from Cortez Middle School recently spent a week on the Colorado State University campus learning to apply math concepts to computer science. They attended the second Math in Action in Computer Science Camp (MACS).

Shrideep Pallickara, an Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science, launched the program last year after winning a prestigious CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation.

He wanted to create a program to teach middle school students how the math concepts they are learning are used in the real world.

“There is a disconnect,” Pallickara said. “Students don’t understand why they have to learn something and when they will use it after they get out of school. Some of the basics of the math concepts I use in my research are taught in middle school.”

During the intensive, week-long camp, students and teachers learn to apply middle school math concepts to computer science through a series of games like Zombie Dice and a takeoff of the Monty Hall “Let’s Make A Deal” show. 

Their class time is divided between learning concepts such as probability and then building programs and coding in computer languages such as Python. Students post the results of their work and an explanation of a project each day on personalized websites.

The middle school students also experience life on a college campus. They stayed in the dorms and ate in dining halls.

“We expose them to as many aspects of college as we can,” Pallickara said.

At the end of the week, the students participated in a graduation ceremony that was attended by CSU President Tony Frank, who also handed out diplomas.

Read about the participants’ experience:

A teacher’s perspective

Pam Cox walked into room 325 in CSU’s Computer Science Building and stopped. 

All 13 of her Cortez Middle School students were already there, typing away on computers. They had arrived an hour early so they could work on their websites for the Math in Action in Computer Science summer camp.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Cox, an algebra and math teacher. “At school, they never go to class early. I’m usually rounding them up in the hallway to make sure they get to class on time.”

 That experience and others convinced Cox that driving 10 hours to Fort Collins for the intensive, week-long camp was worth it.  The students – many of whom have not visited a college – learned to wash their own laundry and navigate their way around the CSU campus.

She also watched the students conquer high school math and embrace computer coding.

“They were doing high school math and weren’t afraid of it all,” Cox said. “It made me realize that I need to push them and not limit what I teach to what the state says students need to know in eighth grade. These students are capable of far more.”

A student’s take

When Cyrell Dance arrived at CSU for the Math in Action in Science Camp on June 2, she had never heard of Python or LINUX or even tried computer coding.

By the end of the week, the 14-year-old Cortez Middle School student decided that she wants to attend college to study graphic design and computer science.

 “It was confusing at first and the math was hard but it got easier and I really liked it,” she said.

 One of her favorite math lessons involved learning matrices.

She and her classmates used one to develop a precise feeding and care schedule for a panda and a turtle based on the foods they eat and the amount of people needed to tend them.

“It was really cool because it helped us organize the information,” Dance said.

She also enjoyed building and maintaining her personal website – a requirement of all students in the class. She started going to camp an hour early so she could work on it.

“I wanted to say that I built and finished my own website,” she said. “I wanted to have it finished by the time camp ended.”