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Mentorship program encourages mathematical interests in youth

Undergraduate students help teach middle and early high schoolers math. The Applied Math Mentorship Program allows these students to see themselves represented in STEM fields. (Courtesy of Don Liebig/UCLA Photography)

By Paula Zepeda

Jan. 31, 2023 10:45 p.m.

UCLA students are fostering mathematical practices among seventh to ninth grade students in Los Angeles through a new mentorship program.

The Applied Mathematics Mentorship Program strives to engage seventh to ninth grade students in applying math to real-world situations and integrating math with science, said Heather Dallas, executive director at the UCLA Curtis Center for Mathematics and Teaching. She said the center has helped improve math programs in participating middle schools throughout LA with the help of other universities’ math and science departments.

“The Applied Math Mentorship Program aims to engage students as doers and creators of mathematics,” Dallas said. “The program is designed to … help show (students) that mathematics is a human endeavor that is relevant in their lives.”

Talks for the program began in June 2020 when Travis Holden, an applied mathematics alumnus and principal of the Barack Obama Global Preparation Academy in South LA, contacted the Curtis Center about a possible enrichment and development opportunity. She added that around 30 undergraduate students were first recruited to assist the younger students with their assignments in 2022.

When working with students, Ruben Rodriguez, an AMMP mentor and third-year applied mathematics student, said mentors focused more on looking at data, making observations, and connecting math to real-world applications, rather than just teaching the material. He said AMMP encourages students to connect math and science projects with data analysis tools, such as Excel and Desmos.

Additionally, the program introduces middle and early high school students to mathematicians, scientists and undergraduate mentors who share common life experiences, Dallas said.

“(The AMMP) has given young low-income minority students a different opportunity because they offered a program that was designed for them,” said Lizbeth Arias, an AMMP mentor and third-year applied mathematics student. “They can relate to me, who was once a low-income minority student like them. We brought a lot of relatability.”

Rodriguez said many of the students are from underserved communities, making this an uncommon opportunity.

The program also covered a wide variety of student projects. Jose Medel, a teacher at Clinton Middle School, one of the schools involved with AMMP, said he taught his seventh grade students about heat islands in their math class, integrating mathematical content with scientific activities.

These forms of pedagogy encourage students to explore the integration of math and science, Medel said. He added that the main point of math education is application in the real world.

Dallas said she is optimistic that this kind of program can be expanded to other subjects, such as the humanities. It is essential for students to see themselves in the field, she added.

Rodriguez said mentors encourage the students to pursue math because it provides a pathway to higher education and STEM occupations. He added that he did not obtain the same level of exposure in mathematics that eighth graders are receiving now in the program compared to when he was in eighth grade.

“We want to show them that there’s people out there in the field of STEM who look like them,” Rodriguez said. “In the case of the undergraduate mentors, we’re studying applied mathematics at UCLA, and we came from very similar communities.”

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