This weekend we ran four mini-maths camps! These are half-day events held at high schools, which give a sort of introduction to the kinds of things that we do at the main maths camp in August at Maseno. On this particular trip, we were partnered with the Elewana Project, which works directly with a number of schools in the area; they mainly bring in students from the US during the summer to work with students, though they are beginning to do some two-week camps aimed at improving educational outcomes for secondary students.
The upshot on this particular trip was that the schools we visited had decently-maintained computer labs, thanks to Elewana's ongoing efforts with the schools. The schools also have student computer clubs, which allows students to have regular access to their computers. As such, our program for the camps were focused on:
- Getting across the basic idea that mathematics is about understanding and applying a system of rules, and
- Getting a little bit of familiarity with the software, so that the students can explore and learn more after we've left.
The region around Amagoro is stunningly beautiful. We were mainly led around by Annette, who is one of Elewana's employees, and Olubayi Olubayi, a really fascinating guy. He grew up in Kenya near Amagoro, but went to the US and eventually finished a biology PhD and became a lecturer at Rutgers. He came back to Kenya about a year ago to work on improving education locally; he's co-founded a non-profit called the Kiwimbi Project, and is focused on improving English literacy which is essential for the success of Kenyan students. Lastly, an employee of Elewana named Jevin ran around to the schools before we arrived and installed all the software; it would have been a very different weekend without his help!
The region also has extremely low crime, due to the fact that just about everyone owns their own land: There's little desperation, and anyway if you stole something you're not going to skip out of town as you still have land to tend. The landscape is a kind of endless procession of small farms, surrounded by the slightly chaotic Kenyan foliage. Cows and goats wander around everywhere, with huge granite boulders towering in the backdrop; Mount Elgon, Kenya's second-highest peak, isn't so far away. I have a sense that the area is a little like a piece of Kenya from 40 years ago, slightly preserved from the forces that have made other parts of the country a bit less pleasant. (VS Naipaul, in 'The Masque of Africa,' talks a bit about how coming back to Uganda after forty years away was a real shock. Amongst other things, the massive explosion in population had left the country a shambles compared to the 1960's, with poor sanitation, trash everywhere, and a general shabbiness that hadn't yet appeared during his earlier travels.)
We stayed at the Elewana house, which has space for about 25 people. It's a beautiful space, combining the relatively simple Kenyan tin-roofed design with a number of American amenities. It feels like a good and simple space, with a big lawn and a joyous golden retriever named Bob. And there's fresh-brewed coffee in the morning! I'm definitely looking forward to going back for another round of camps in a couple weeks.
In full, the program was as follows(with some adjustment from one school to the next):
- Maths Camp Song sing-along. This got the students immediately out of the mind-set that we were just going to talk at them for three hours!
- Introductions. (I felt that these often went on a bit too long. Better to get to activities than to keep repeating that math is fun!)
- Geogebra. We showed some basics of Geogebra animations, which gets across quite viscerally the idea of a variable and the basic Euclidean transformations (reflection, translation, rotation). It also gets the students familiar with the software, navigating the various menus, etc.
- Programming. We reprised the 'robot puzzles' from the main maths camp, where one student takes the role of a robot while the other students write a list of instructions to get the 'robot' to pick up a bottle of water and put it on a target square. This activity was very successful, achieved high student engagement, and saw some real problem solving on the parts of the students. The ideas conveyed include giving instructions in a limited syntax (they are allowed symbols only for move forward, turn left, pick up, and put down), and the notion of following instructions exactly, even when the desired outcome isn't what one might expect.
- A first brush with Hailstone Numbers. We write down some hailstone sequences, starting from initial numbers supplied by the students, and guide the students through the process of finding the rules for the hailstone sequence. (Which are: If the number is even divide by two, and if it is odd, multiply by three and add one.) This gets across the idea that random-seeming phenomena can have simple rules guiding them: If we figure out the rules, we can understand the behavior.
Overall, the mini-camps went great. We visited a new-ish girls' school, a couple kind of standard boarding schools, and a very impoverished school at the end. The first and last schools probably went the best, due to really excellent student engagement and good cooperation amongst the students. The differences were probably most apparent (to me anyways) during the singing and the 'robot game.' You get a sense very quickly from the singing whether the students can let down their guard and enjoy themselves. And the programming shows how much they're up for helping each other out, and it takes a bit of engagement to get past just guessing at solutions at first.
On the drive home this evening I also had a good chance to talk at length with Hannington and Phyllis, two students we have a lot of hopes for, about pedagogy and linear algebra. We're hoping that they'll eventually have enough under their belt to take on some of these half-day mini-camps on their own; then we'll really be able to hit a lot of schools, beyond what we can reach with just a couple over-worked academics!