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.

1 comment:

Dan Zaharopol said...

Ah, this is what I get for not reading any blogs for the past nine months or so...

Very interesting thoughts. Most of them I'd already considered. Mathcamp itself is pretty much a miracle of finances, and MHS would need the same kind of miracle to function, except on a larger scale. Not inconceivable, but difficult. Thus my proposal that led to your link here. :)

Mathcamp-like culture can develop in a more general environment; for example, it's quite successful at CTY. There, there's a general appreciation of "nerdiness" of all varieties, but it can take the form of literature or politics just as much as mathematics. People tend to respect what everyone else likes to do.

Even at CTY, you're just taking one course, so although your interests might be more broad, most of your friends will all be in Geopolitics or whatever with you, so your particular nerdy culture will focus on that. The interesting thing will be at a high school, where *everyone* is getting a liberal arts education simultaneously.

I've heard of boarding high schools that went really the wrong way in terms of culture --- lots of angst and sex and whatnot rather than a cohesive positive culture. Certainly the biggest challenge would be to establish early-on a really positive culture with lots of good role models. (Erm, us.)

It would be an interesting experiment. :)