Third Maseno Math Camp

3rd Maseno Maths Camp group photo (silly version).
3rd Maseno Maths Camp group photo (silly version).

The third annual Maseno math camp ran in the third week of August; it’s a bit hard to believe that we’re up to three already!

The week started with a great talk from Rejoyce Gavhi, a South African mathematician who just finished a postdoc in Canada, and who is now starting a new job with AIMS:Sec.  She talked about the challenges she overcame in pursuing mathematics as a woman from Africa, and was quite inspirational for everyone involved.

As usual, we divided this year’s camp up into five ‘themes.’  The themes this year were programming, modelling, geometry, combinatorics, and code-breaking.  I mainly helped put together the combinatorics section with Ingrid Mostert (from AIMS:Sec) and Santiago Borio, a Geogebra virtuoso who teaches school in London; the sessions were about the bijection between subsets and lattice paths, and seeing the binomial coefficients from different perspectives.  Chris Clarke put together some great sessions in the modelling section (for example, using massively multi-player dice-games to model the spread of a disease in a population).  The programming section focused on building flow charts to describe algorithms, which was a pretty different tack than we’d previously considered, and I think a good one.  I never really think of flow charts when I program, but breaking a process down into some ‘decision points’ and considering all possible outcomes is quite useful as a programmer.  Approaching the process via flow charts is a great way to organize that process in a visual way.

One the whole, it was a much lower stress camp than its predecessors: the volunteer-to-student ratio was much higher than any previous camp.  On the volunteer side, word is getting out to more and more people that we’re putting on a good camp, so the number of volunteers is going up.  Indeed, this year, we had four volunteers from South Africa and one from Ghana, in addition to a growing crew from the UK and the usual suspects from Maseno.  All in all, we had about twenty people for coordinating the camp and running sessions.

On the student end, we had a bit of recruiting trouble this year: Just as we were gearing up, a teacher’s strike shut down the schools cutting off our ability to reach students.  Indeed, the strike came close to completely killing the camp: another week and we wouldn’t have been able to recruit at all, and there was a chance that the schools would have used the ‘break’ where the camp occurs to do make-up classes.  So things just barely worked out.  We had 46 students (the previous Maseno camps were, I think, 28 and 136, respectively), which was eminently manageable.  The bigger population at the second math camp had a bigger share of medical and behaviour problems to keep on top of, and we saw almost no problems this time around.  Of course, another factor this year was that we didn’t have the grant support that we had last year.  A very generous $10,000 grant from the US Embassy allowed us to support many students last year.  So there’s possibly some class factors involved here, too: the students we had were a mix of those who had come before and therefore knew the value of the camp, students from families who could get together a couple-few thousand shillings on short notice, and a very few students who had been specifically sponsored.

Emily Hobbs with a student.
Emily Hobbs with a student.

With so many additional volunteers, we started preparing materials for easy distribution.  We’re looking to assemble a ‘math camp in a box’ that we can hand out to people, describing the logistical issues that need to be arranged for, and also providing enough activity outlines to run a camp on.  We put a good bit of the extra staff power towards writing up materials; hopefully we’ll have something together within the year!

We also had some good discussions about putting together a math newsletter for secondary schools.  Something brief, with a short article and some problems to work on, and a bit of space for recognizing those who send in good solutions to problems.  The idea is to provide a focal point for math clubs in schools, encourage individuals to interact with math in a different way, promote problem solving, and leverage our volunteer base in a way that can touch thousands of students instead of just the dozens we manage to meet in the camps.  For my part, I think this is a great idea, based partly on Doron Zeilberger’s Opinion #71, where he notices that a great proportion of excellent Israeli mathematicians were showing up in the rankings of Israel’s own secondary school math publication thirty years prior.  And while we might argue cause-and-effect, it’s doubtless the case that getting kids thinking usefully about problem solving and mathematics as soon as possible is good for their long-term scientific development.  A good publication will also give us  better chance to pick out strong students and target them for things like International Math Olympiad training, or other enrichment programs.

But more on that at a later date!

All in all, it was a great third math camp.  The kids went home very satisfied, according to our survey results…  And we have lots of things to think about going forward towards the fourth Maseno camp and second Ethiopian camp and probably the first Ghanian camp!

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