Local students STEP into summer school at Union

Publication Date

On a recent weekday morning, Mary O’Keefe stood before a lively group of seventh to 12th graders and promised to give them magic powers.

Mary O'Keefe

Mary O'Keefe teaches STEP students the magic of math during a recent workshop. (Photos by Jessica Doran '13)

On the blackboard behind her, O’Keefe had sketched out five sets of numbers, each containing 16 numbers and labeled A,B,C, D or E.

Handing out a series of compact white boards and magic markers, O’Keefe, who teaches economics at Union, asked the students to jot down the letter of each set with the number that corresponded to the date of their birthday. One by one, O’Keefe surveyed the room and correctly predicted each birth date by simply looking at the letters students had scribbled.

“Does anyone know the secret?” O’Keefe asked.

Imara James’s arm shot up. James, a seventh-grader at Canajoharie Middle School, rose from her desk and calmly explained how she cracked the code of the “birthday binary game,” a numbers game embraced by math-heads for decades. Others nodded as they slowly grasped the answer.

“Now you have the magic power,” O’Keefe said.

While some students lazily spend their summers hanging out, the 32 students from historically underrepresented backgrounds are getting an early taste of college life as part of the Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP) summer camp, now in its 16th year at Union.

Over three weeks, students attend workshops on everything from physics and engineering to math and computer science, led primarily by Union faculty, including Samuel Amanuel (Physics); Deidre Hill Butler (Sociology); Ashraf Ghaly and James Hedrick (Engineering); Kristina Striegnitz and Nicholas Webb (Computer Science); and Karl Zimmermann (Math).

Hailing from around the region, the students also meet with representatives from Admissions and Financial Aid, Schaffer Library and the Becker Career Center.

Working in small groups, the students are mentored by Union undergraduates, who help them work on a science research project that is presented at the end of the program.

“STEP is an important program because the students get real lab experience and participate in hands-on workshops, which really solidifies their interest in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields,” said Angela Tatem, director of the Kenney Community Center, sponsor of the camp, which is funded by a grant from the New York State Department of Education.

“They also learn a lot from their mentors and develop friendships with the college students. The mentors are great at sharing their experience and academic research with the kids.”

The payoff is also strong for the mentors.

“It feels good to know you are helping kids understand the importance of academics,” said Danielle Franco ’15, a neuroscience major from Darien, Conn.

Other mentors include Syed Hussain '14, Elite Williams '13, Salman Syed '14, Daniel Hernandez '13, Teresa Crasto '14, Thao Nguyen '13, Jully Araujo '13 and Habib Kamara '13.

O’Keefe, the leader of a number of local math circles, recently began blogging about “Guerrilla Math Circles.” Back in the classroom, she encouraged the students to share what they learned about math with friends and family.

As she explained afterward, “the cool thing is that the more you share of your own knowledge of math with others, the more you retain for yourself, because explaining it to others deepens your own understanding.”