SUNY Oswego launched an expanded math bridge camp in August for first-year students in STEM majors. Supported by a SUNY grant for its potential as a template for other colleges and universities, the weeklong camp is a key strategy in the college’s retention efforts in science, technology, engineering and in mathematics itself.

The initiative—SUNY Undergraduate Mathematics Success (SUMS)—will intensify support to an increasingly broad range of incoming students who want to improve college-level math skills to succeed in STEM degree programs or to move on to teach STEM material in schools.

“Nationally, we know that the mathematics gateway courses—such as calculus—are key for STEM success,” said SUMS project leader Adrienne McCormick, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “And nationally, higher education institutions are looking for increased STEM retention rates. To make sure we have retention and completion to STEM degrees, it makes a lot of sense to invest in those early mathematics experiences. The math bridge camp is an important part of this.”

SUMS’ project charter—key to a recent SUNY Investment and Performance Fund grant of $750,000 over four years—also lays out plans for a Mathematics Learning Success Center under development in Marano Campus Center, hiring of math tutors and graduate assistants, development of a Math Fellows program for all STEM instructors teaching courses and labs with math components, a review and upgrade of precalculus curriculum leading to better student experiences in calculus, and a system for measuring the success of the SUMS initiative.

“If there are talented students who come here determined to succeed in STEM, we want to make sure they are given every opportunity,” said Scott Preston, chair of the mathematics department.

‘Preview of readiness’

On Aug. 22, mathematics professor Chris Baltus taught a bridge precalculus class in Shineman Center. More than two dozen students in that class—among about 140 who registered to arrive at college voluntarily a week early for the tuition-free camp—worked on Baltus’ problems in linear equations and factoring as mentors Erin Green and Marcello Cierro roamed, actively assisting the newly arrived freshmen.

“I think bridge camp is awesome, because it can help kids change their perception of what math course they’re going to be placed in,” said Green, a junior adolescence education major concentrating in math. “It’s a preview of their readiness.”

Cierro, a junior computer science major, was a bridge camper two years ago, even though he came in as a “Calculus III” student. “It’s a good experience, because you meet a lot of friends,” he said. “You’re exposed to college classrooms and teaching styles. It’s good for situating yourself to college life and academics.”

At Baltus’ encouragement, students assisted each other on the worksheets. Incoming students Marc DiRaimo, an electrical and computer engineering major, and Aubrey Nooks, a software engineering major, were meeting for the first time, though both graduated from Albany-area high schools. Both said they were refreshing their knowledge—and hoping to boost their placement scores—for calculus starting Aug. 29.

The camp provides opportunities for students to use ALEKS—an artificially intelligent assessment and learning system—and for faculty to recommend proper placement in the appropriate math gateway courses.

STEM diversity

The groundwork for the expanded math bridge camp has been laid in recent years, thanks to a pair of National Science Foundation grants. Fehmi Damkaci of the chemistry faculty, principal investigator on the latest one—a five-year, $873,000 NSF-STEP grant—said the camp is in transition to becoming a permanent option for incoming STEM majors and future teachers. The aim is eventually to expand to include all students in data-intensive programs throughout all four schools of SUNY Oswego.

Diversity in STEM majors—more women, more students from underrepresented groups and fewer economic hurdles—is another important goal, McCormick said. Shashi Kanbur of the physics faculty has led a five-year, $600,000 National Science Foundation S-STEM grant that has contributed to rising numbers of underrepresented student enrollees in the sciences. Kanbur organized Oswego’s first-ever summer bridge camp and close-mentoring system in 2011.

McCormick pointed out that the math success initiatives align closely to the college’s “Tomorrow” strategic plan: increasing the flow in the education pipeline for a future workforce of graduates prepared to help solve the “grand challenges of our time.”

“I see the SUMS effort as being part of that. It trickles up, if you will,” she said.