28 July 2006

Mathcamp High School, to within an order of magnitude

Although I've been a Mathcamp JC, I've carefully stayed away from any talk financial. I've certainly been around, so perhaps have more knowledge than most, but I'm pretty sure that any numerics I might quote are, to within my level of accuracy, publicly available.

Mathcamp tuition for the five-week summer hovers around $3000; half of this goes to the university for room and board. (For comparison, one week without scholarship at a private American university costs more than $1000.) There are 100 students, many of whom do not pay full fair; we can expect an operating budget from tuition around 50 thousand dollars (if fully half of camp is covered by scholarships; perhaps 100 thousand is a good upper estimate). What, then, are expenses? There are roughly 20 staff, who each make, travel and housing included, between three and four thousand dollars for the summer. (This is less, per week, than many camps pay, but certainly well worth it.) That right there eats up most of the operating budget; housing for visitors (at any given time there are perhaps four former staff and perhaps four Famous Professors) already pushes us over any reasonable estimate. And, of course, visiting professors receive around $100 a day, plus travel, far below what many conferences pay. So it's possible, with squeezing, that Mathcamp breaks even. More likely, the Mathematical Foundation of America is doing its job well.

Greg, a camper, brought up one day after lunch the fantasy of a Mathcamp High School. Is it feasible? he asked. Is it good? I responded.

Mathcamp High School, under the present model, would be extremely expensive. College tuition is on par with tuition at elite boarding schools: Exeter, for instance, expects about $37 000 per year. Mathcamp successfully draws students from many socioeconomic backgrounds; it would have to be very careful to continue to do so in a yearlong model. Is MFOA up to the task?

Of course, I would not go to Mathcamp High School. Boarding schools can be extremely valuable, especially for the unfortunately many children who come from less-than-supportive families. But students with good families and good local schools should not, generally, choose boarding schools, even if they are economically feasible.

Mathcamp High School would also have to be extremely careful about keeping the culture of freedom that it currently rides to great success. Can an elite school for gifted youth avoid all quantitative grades and measurements? Can it allow students complete freedom to choose their classes and design their curricula? There are Waldorf schools that succeed. How do they do it?

One thing MHS would have to do is find young, enthusiastic, and brilliant teachers who can commit to years-long tenures. Mathcamp the summer program has a student-teacher ratio of almost five-to-one; advising groups (not all teachers advise) are around size seven. To make MHS work would require JCs and Mentors to be even more involved in helping students pick classes and put together four-year plans, assuring that they cover complete curricula.

Where would the staff come from? Undergrad and graduate students have their own academic careers to see to. But they are who you want: young and enthusiastic and able to directly participate in the culture.

Perhaps you run it at a college. Perhaps, as part of the deal allowing Mathcamp to stay on that campus for the year, the staff can enroll as full-time students. Then, especially if MHS's campus continues to move from year to year, Mathcamp can continue to bring in students from around the country.

I would gladly spend a year on staff at MHS. But I would not give up four years at Stanford to work as an MHS staff advisor, and I had said earlier that helping students plan high-school-long curricula takes staff who are there for the long haul. And what about graduate students?

MHS could no longer provide only math classes. American colleges demand that American high schools provide general liberal educations, and I'm sure that the Mathcamp model would work in other academic areas. What I'm not sure about is how tied Mathcamp's particularly dorky culture is to the math emphasis. The value at Mathcamp of sitting around in the lounge talking math, and math specifically, is astronomical: full immersion in the math jokes and culture and language cannot be replaced.

The most important question, in any discussion of extending Mathcamp from five weeks to forty, is how diminished would be the immediate experience. And how much is a good thing. Campers talk extremely positively about how "intense" a summer they had. Mathcamp levels of intensity are not sustainable, although some colleges come close. Is close good enough?

In the hope of providing a more year-round Mathcamp presence, I have, instead, a different suggestion. Let's hold Mathcamp more than once a year. Five weeks in the summer, yes, but also two weeks over winter break. These would most reasonably be in the American south or southwest, where it's warmer, but perhaps these two weeks should be in southern Maine, so as to end with four days at MIT's Mystery Hunt. Then another week around spring break: Mathcamp, I feel, has the bravado to encourage students to skip a week of high school if the local spring break falls on a different week from Mathcamp's. Each of these would be run, not as just a reunion, but as a mini camp: JCs and Mentors would live in dorms as RAs, fulfill all the loco-parentis responsibilities of camp counselors, and run activities and teach classes. This would not be a reunion but a week- or two-week-long math conference.

This I could skip school to organize. College final exam periods are largely a laugh; one can find workarounds for missing classes and assignments. I would not give up a year at Stanford for a year JCing, unless I simultaneously had access to a university's classes and undergraduate community. But I would happily — nay, eagerly — give up a few weeks.

05 July 2006

Orange Juice: it's what's for breakfast

When I went off to college, my mother strongly encouraged me not to get a credit card. I have a debit/atm card, no debt, and no credit either. Sometime, probably at the end of the summer, I'll sign up for one of those air miles cards, and put all sorts of notes-to-self in my calendar about how much to spend, and when to pay it off, and when to cancel. I need the credit history, because it won't be too long before I actually will want to borrow. And it's possible, given the right circumstances, to make money (or at least air fare) off those cards. But in my case the right circumstances include having parents pay for tuition and bail me out when needed (never more than the cost of books and board bill, which I've been covering out of pocket, although they offered to pay for them).

And they've made it very clear that when I hit grad school, so exactly a year from now, I'm responsible for paying for everything. Rent, food, etc. comes out of whatever salary and stipend I get.

One way to live very well and very cheaply, if you're willing to spend the time and energy on thinking about cooking and eating, is to always cook vegan. Or vegan plus eggs, since eggs are cheaper than soy. Or, rather, it's very easy to spend huge amounts of money on vegan products — soy milks and egg replacers and yummy, unnecessary stuff. But, if you have the pallet, vegetables and beans and soy are cheaper than meat and dairy.

At school, this is a big part of how we cut costs — my quarterly board bill is less than any other eating arrangement on campus. I'll be doing half the ordering for our kitchen, and it's great to buy bulk flours. Our most expensive products are the (organic, free range) dairy: cheese and butter is expensive. It's also high fat, and especially high in saturated fat (is how it stays solid at room temp). It's a constant challenge to try to convince the residents, many of whom have never even tried vegetarianism before, that they don't need cheese and butter to survive. I plan to wow them, early on, with vegan desserts: my brother got me a vegan cookbook that, because of its veganism, is also zero-colesterol, almost zero-saturated fat, and generally very low fat. Silken tofu, my current favorite ingredient, in almost every cake, frosting, and pudding.

Poverty is one of the major causes of American obesity. Eating healthy requires resources: time, energy, education, and money. Whereas McDonalds will sell you all the calories you need in a meal for a dollar and no wait. But if you have the conveniences of, for instance, an academic life, in which the government school provides medical coverage, athletic facilities, something intellectual to do, and a small amount of money, living cheaply and eating well is very easy. The trick is to be a food snob: prefer your own cooking, buy only the very best ingredients, and think carefully about what you eat. And eat vegan. And organic. And local. And, most importantly, be part of the "slow food" push. WholeFoods will happily provide expensive vegan organic premade and packaged products.

Below is my signature dessert, which I usually think of as a vegan gluten-free brownie recipe, but I'll present here as a chocolate raspberry cake (as I had it for my birthday), with commentary on how to modify. As always, check local availability before committing to any particular fresh produce — by varying the fruit, one can make a seasonal cake in almost any season.

Chocolate raspberry cake

Preheat oven 350°F (325 for gluten-free). Grease two nine-inch round cake pans (or one 9x13 pan for brownies), and, for cakes, cut parchment or wax paper into circles to exactly fit on the bottom of the pans (for easier removal), place in, and grease both sides.

In blender, combine wet ingredients until smooth:
  • 1 cup (8 oz) silken tofu
  • 1/2 cup raspberry (or other fruit) jam
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 1 Tbsp vanilla

In standing mixer with paddle blade, mix dry ingredients:
  • 2 cups sugar (for fudge brownies, use 3 cups)
  • 1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (for brownies, use 1 1/2 cups)
  • optional: up to 1 Tbsp instant coffee powder
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour (or cake flour, or tapioca flour for gluten-free; if making cake with tapioca flour, supplement with 2 tsp xanthan gum, a gluten substitute derived from bacteria, and 1/4 cup cornstarch)
  • 1 tsp baking soda (for brownies, use less; baking powder also works, and has less leavening power, because the batter is already acidic)

Pour in wet ingredients. (For brownies, also add
  • 3 cups (vegan) dark chocolate chips)
Mix, adding up to
  • 1 cup soymilk (be sure, if making gluten-free, to check the brand — Soy Dream and Almond Breeze are both safe, whereas Edensoy and Vitasoy are not)
if you feel like batter is too dry (at school we don't get silken tofu, so I use 1 cup firm tofu and 1 cup soy milk; at home, silken tofu means that with the soy milk it is often too liquidy). Pour into greased pans, and bake until done. (Gluten free at 325 takes a little over an hour; hotter temperatures burn the edges. Glutinous can go faster and hotter.) Enjoy licking the extra batter off the pan: no eggs means no salmonella.

Frosting and assembly

Tofu generally comes in 16-oz packs, and I usually use about 9 oz in this cake. So the rest, rather than trying to keep it, goes into the frosting. (In theory one would have the presence of mind to do the frosting a day ahead, so that the tofu can set. But I never do.)

Wash and clean standing mixer bowl, and fit with wire whisk. Whip
  • silken tofu
until smooth. (You might decide instead to puree it in the blender, and then move to the mixer, or do it all in the blender or food processor. I've seen recipes calling for any of the three.) Then add, mostly to taste
  • cocoa powder
  • powdered sugar
  • ground instant coffee
  • corn starch and/or tapioca powder to thicken
until you reach a sweet and spreadable consistency. Place in freezer to set (or fridge if you have enough time).

For a raspberry chocolate cake, I also like to acquire fresh raspberries, and to make a raspberry syrup/glaze. This latter is very easy: in a sauce pan, heat raspberry jam with a little water until it dissolves, just before boiling (careful not to overheat and burn the sugar).

Once cakes are done, let cool 10 minutes then remove from pans and let cool completely. To assemble, place one cake face down on plate. Spread a thin layer of frosting, and cover with
  • fresh raspberries, cut in half
and sprinkle on a little glaze. Then place second layer on top, and frost sides and top. Cover top with
  • whole fresh raspberries
and drizzle with glaze.

Serve, and amaze your friends, after they've commented on how moist and rich it is, by revealing its ingredients.