Youths excel in U math program

Ingrid Sanden

Sarah Brandel, a senior at Hopkins High School, knew last fall that she’d be attending Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., next year. Brandel, 18, plans to major in physics.
The gifted young student has already published three poems, is working on her first novel and — thanks to an innovative program at the University of Minnesota — has taken more math classes than most college students could imagine in their worst nightmares.
Each year, 200 students in grades 5 through 8 agree to give up their weekends and a substantial amount of time during the school week to study math in the program. By the time they’re ready to graduate high school, many of them will have completed a rigorous curriculum of advanced collegiate math.
“It was a lot of work and I wasn’t sure at first,” said Brandel of the University’s Talented Youth Mathematics Program. “The first couple of years were tough. It was a big change and I didn’t want to do it.”
The program currently has 550 participants. More than 1,200 take the application test each year in hopes of becoming one of the 200 selected for admission.
During their first year, the students blaze through high school algebra, moving on to geometry and mathematical analysis during the second. Ambitious students like Brandel can continue with the calculus component of the program.
Students attend two-hour classes that cover about the same amount of information as three weeks of regular-paced math classes. Students, on average, complete 10 to 12 hours of homework for the class each week.
Andrea Olson, an administrator of the project, said students’ motivation is the key to their success.
“You can’t ask a student to work at that hard of a pace if they’re not motivated,” Olson said. “We want everyone in the program to be successful, so we have to start with motivated people.”
Olson said the program is geared toward students talented in math.
“Talented means that you have personal propensity and motivation,” she said. “The key thing is, the total experience isn’t so they can take an accelerated math course. We want to keep the best and the brightest interested.”
Parents must sign a family contract before their child joins the program, Olson said. The contract describes the commitment to the math program as one similar to a varsity sport. Parents must discuss time management with their child, pay annual costs and book fees and acknowledge program standards that their children must uphold.
The program has an annual budget of just under $750,000. Students in the high school math component pay a $250 registration fee for the program, and students in the collegiate math component pay one half of the standard University tuition for the class. The rest of the cost per student is covered by designated money from the state, which is given to the University in a lump sum for special programs.
The Minnesota State Legislature provided half the program’s funding in 1995-96; the remainder came through a combination of private and federal grant money, test fees and tuition. Students buy their own books.
Teaching assistants also provide support to the young students beyond that given to University students. TAs offer their home phone numbers, set up study groups and develop individual relationships with the students.
Bob Thurman, a TA who co-teaches the calculus class, said four of the 24 kids in the third-level calculus class will attend Stanford in the fall. “It’s kind of disgusting, but it’s fantastic,” he said. He said he was enthusiastic about students’ decisions to apply to schools like Harvard and Northwestern but encouraged them to apply to several different schools. “They all got in. They’re all going to their first choice.”
Thurman said he hopes more students can benefit from the program.
“I’d like to get more minorities, especially blacks,” he said. “Otherwise we have a pretty good ethnic mix.” He also said having smaller classes with more teachers is a goal. “We need a place where gifted students can go to keep being challenged.”
Thurman, who is new to the University this year, said there is no comparison between the program’s class and other college classes for which he’s been a TA. “This is by far the best class of kids. They’re the most motivated, sharpest and their parents have a lot to do with it because they grow up in homes where they’re taught that learning is important and fun. Parents see the education as an investment. They’re just smart kids. They’re definitely not a bunch of nerds.”
While organizers try to integrate minority students into the program, many say they understand why some may be critical of the level of minority participation.
Tracy Bibelnieks, calculus professor and associate director of the program, said because funding from the state and from external sources is disappearing, recruitment and intervention for underrepresented students is difficult.
“Our broad goal is to increase interest in math and science in girls and underrepresented populations,” she said.
Olson said some of the responsibility should be put on the underrepresented population. For the 1995-96 school year, almost one third of the 550 students involved were female and nearly one fifth were minorities.
“Underrepresented people need to strive, meet the criteria and meet the qualifications,” she said. “We can’t dilute the program to bring people in. You need to bring yourself up. Students who do the best start at a young age.”
Brandel said the program solved her problem of being bored with math in high school. She said her parents pushed her to work at a higher level.
“I wouldn’t be in it if my parents wouldn’t have pushed me,” she said. “People should go for it if they get in.”