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swaying in the breeze black angry dog
Illustration by Megan M. Gannett, 13, from her story Swaying in the Breeze, published in our December 2016 issue

I jumped out of the car and closed the door behind me. I ran up the sidewalk towards the house where math camp was being held. A few other kids were also arriving then and I followed them into the house. I left my shoes with everyone else’s, by the door, and went inside. I sat down on the carpet where the other kids were sitting and we played a fun game called Sushi Go to start the day. When we were done, one of the kids asked if we could play again, but the teachers said we had to start doing math stuff. We started a new activity which was math-related, a magic trick. You can figure out the trick using math and that was what we were supposed to do. We all sat around trying to think. We had a few guesses but we couldn’t completely figure it out. Then we started working on a problem sheet. We had only been working for five minutes or so when the dog came in. He walked under the table and everyone started petting him and forgot all about the math. Then he walked out and lay down on the side and we went back to math.

What do you think of when you think of summer? Most people, including me, think of sunshine, lemonade, swimming, and the beach. I don’t usually think of math. But for one week this summer, I went to math camp. I did it gladly. It was a lot of fun. Actually, a lot of my friends are also doing math camp this summer. Parents want kids to get excited about the topics they learn in school. Yet, a lot of kids feel like the math they learn in school is boring and hard. Going to math camp can be a chance to get kids excited about math.

Some math camps make math more exciting by teaching advanced topics that are usually taught in college. One example is cryptography which uses math to create codes to send secret messages. By introducing it to kids they see how useful math is and that makes them feel excited. But teaching advanced topics also has its downside. One day, when I was at Girls Who Code, I was introduced to some problems in cryptography. It was a lot of fun to learn something so cool and interesting. However I didn't feel like I fully understood it. I think that when you learn something complicated like that, you feel a little bit like you aren’t learning the real thing and you are just learning an easier version. You also feel like you don’t completely understand what they are teaching. Sometimes it is because it is too complicated, given the math you know. And sometimes even though it is simplified, the teachers can’t fully explain it in a simplified way, so you are confused about the part they don’t explain.

The problems I did at my math camp this year were about the factors of numbers which required knowing what kids already learn in school, multiplication and counting. The material was at our level so we could fully understand it. Beyond that we needed to use reasoning skills. One problem we did asked us to find the smallest number with sixteen factors that doesn’t divide by six. Understanding what the problem is asking is easy but finding that number quickly is not so straightforward. I was sitting next to a friend of mine that is a little younger then me. “Do you want to work together?” I asked her. “Sure,” she said. I took my pencil and started writing out the different cases on the sheet. The problem isn’t that hard, but it would take forever to check numbers until you find one that works. Instead you have to construct a prime factorization that you know would have sixteen factors because of the powers. There are different options, but it is easy to find the smallest one. You also know that the number can either divide by two or divide by three but cannot divide by both two and three because it doesn’t divide by six. My friend and I talked about the problem and ruled out the cases that didn’t work, until we were left with the answer which was 280.

I smiled. Solving the problem felt good. It always feels good to solve a math problem. Sometimes I figure out how to use a new technique even though I am not sure I can do the problem, but in this case it was because I felt good that I knew how to approach the problem. When you first see it, it’s hard to know how to get started. You could just try things but that seems like an endless task. I was lucky because I had seen such problems before. Either way, I still felt a sense of accomplishment.

So in my opinion you don't have to do an advanced topic to get excited about math. You can do simple problems. The excitement comes from solving a problem from beginning to end and fully understanding it. That is what is empowering. And like the cryptography problems, the problems I did are not only empowering, they are also cool. My dad who teaches classes at college thought the problems were so cool that he decided to give some of them at the university in the fall. Does that make it slightly more exciting for me? Maybe.

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