One weekend in early July, Sarah Koch, a math professor in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA), sat in her living room surrounded by 90 goodie bags she’d filled with fun things like Dairy Queen gift cards, yo-yos, Play-Doh, and sidewalk chalk. She wasn’t planning a huge birthday party. Instead, as the director of Ypsi Math Corps at U(M), a free summer day camp for middle and high school students from the Ypsilanti area, she was working hard to keep the camp’s lively spirit alive even though the group was meeting virtually via Zoom this summer. The goodie bags were a key touchpoint of this year’s online camp. Every Sunday for the following four weeks, Koch and a team of colleagues would meet at Ypsilanti Community Middle School to assemble a new batch of bags for the middle school campers to pick up.

In the summer of 2019, Math Corps at U(M) took place at University of Michigan and the kids loved that they got to hang out on campus and eat in a college dining hall every day. The promise of a daily campus adventure was most of the allure, thought Koch and her co-coordinators, fellow U-M math professors Stephen DeBacker and Yunus Zeytuncu. This summer, they learned that what really drew Ypsilanti middle and high school students to the camp was something more intangible and exponentially more powerful.

Jazz Hands

One of the things that makes traditional summer camps so successful is the opportunity for campers to build new friendships and bond over shared experiences—special traditions, songs and skits, and beloved (and sometimes silly) counselors. It’s what keeps kids coming back every year. In many ways, Math Corps is no different; it has its own traditions, like using American Sign Language’s “jazz hands” sign for silent clapping to show support when someone is sharing in front of a group, and Thursday Family Days, when everyone wears their Math Corps t-shirts and the entire community comes together to play games. 

Math Corps campers also come away with greater confidence in their math skills, as well as two to three times higher test scores. Math Corps accomplishes these outcomes by focusing on environment over instruction—fostering an inclusive environment where the rules for kids are simple and clear: be yourself, always strive to realize your own greatness, and be safe.

“It’s not really a math camp,” said Koch. “Math does guide what we do with the kids, but it’s really about supporting the kids and celebrating them.”

The cornerstone of Math Corps is “the conviction that all kids have a unique greatness inside, you just need to give them a safe space and it will shine,” Koch said. “That’s why this program works unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. Everyone who works with us really, truly believes that, and it has this amazing consequence: these kids do incredible things.”

Math Corps uses a youth-led staffing model similar to many summer camps. High school students are empowered to serve as paid teaching assistants (TAs) to the middle school campers, while undergraduate students are the camp’s college instructors (CIs) and receive a stipend. At every level, older Math Corps participants become role models, mentors, and friends to younger campers. 

“It’s important that the kids know that someone cares about them as people, not just as math students,” says Koch. “The TAs and CIs are like camp counselors. They lead games, check in on their group members, and they are there when the campers just want to talk.”

Stephen DeBacker and Sarah Koch leading the daily assembly (photo taken in 2019, when Math Corps was held in person). DeBacker is the Minister of Humor for the program, and Koch is its director.

Exponential Success

The first Math Corps program was founded in Detroit in 1992 by a pair of mathematicians from Wayne State University, Professor Steve Khan, affectionately known as P.K., and retired lecturer Leonard Boehm, both of whom remain actively involved at the Detroit site. They discovered that students in Detroit public schools faced a variety of circumstances, including underfunding, teacher shortages, and inconsistent instruction, that stood in the way of their academic success. Math Corps was founded on a philosophy of “loving and believing in kids” and celebrating accomplishments, large and small, to help unlock their true potential. 

P.K. and Boehm found that, despite lower than average test scores, the students they worked with in Detroit Math Corps were able to significantly increase their proficiency in math. All it took was six weeks of someone giving them personal attention, teaching them, and creating a safe space where they could be themselves. Nearly thirty years later, the program has over 3,000 Detroit alumni and has been replicated in three other cities in Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio, in addition to Ann Arbor. 

Koch and her co-coordinators brought Math Corps to the University of Michigan in 2019 as an offshoot of the Department of Mathematics’ Math Mondays, a community outreach program at Ypsilanti Community Middle School.

Koch wanted to learn more about working with middle school students to get some ideas for Math Mondays, so she drove to Detroit to check out a Math Corps visitors’ day.

“The Math Corps kids were dancing and singing and having so much fun, they couldn’t answer the questions fast enough,” said Koch. “And they’re doing math, they’re doing homework, they’re so excited, and they’re coming back every summer. There was so much energy. I thought, ‘We have to do this in Ypsilanti.’”

Thanks in part to Math Mondays’ established presence in the Ypsilanti community, Koch and the Math Corps team recruited a full camp of 40 middle schoolers and 20 high school teaching assistants for 2019's inaugural camp. 

“Some of P.K.’s kids from Detroit are now undergrads at Michigan,” said Koch, in a nod to the proof of how powerful the program has been for Detroit public school kids. “They joined us as college instructors, and were a huge help that first year. They taught us about the philosophy and how the program should be run. They really helped us start our own Math Corps family here in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor.”

“Math Corps changed my life,” said Bailey Tate (A.B. ‘20), who grew up in the Detroit Math Corps program. Tate is one of the CIs who were instrumental in getting Math Corps at U(M) off the ground in 2019, and returned to the program to work again as a CI in 2020. “This program helped me to understand the power of believing in people and their abilities, especially kids. Not only that, it has helped me grow as a mentor and expand my network. It's not just a math camp, but a life program where you meet your forever family.”

The Math Corps at U(M) team’s efforts made an immediate impact in 2019; at the end of the camp’s four weeks, the group’s average test scores tripled.

“My child hopes to continue to be a part of this wonderful program,” said a parent whose child participated in both 2019 and 2020. “Last year as an eighth grader, she received all As in math and became a tutor. Prior to Math Corps she struggled and had Cs.”

Math Corps campers (in yellow) and their TAs (in gray) played games at a Math Corps picnic on the University of Michigan campus in 2019.

Going the Extra Mile

By April 2020, the world was in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic and it was apparent that Math Corps at U(M) wouldn’t actually be held in person at U-M. Koch and the team were determined to figure out a way to conduct a virtual camp. One of the keys to the Detroit program’s success has been its year-to-year consistency, and they knew that skipping a summer when the Ypsi camp was only a year old could stall its momentum.

When most K-12 schools, colleges, and universities went virtual this spring, administrators quickly learned that many students lacked access to technology tools, like dedicated tablets or laptops and reliable internet access, that were essential to equitable online learning. To pull off a virtual camp, Math Corps determined that they’d need to provide each camper, in grades six through twelve, with their own tablet. 

“We hit a stumbling block pretty early on with the supply chain,” says Koch. 

The tablets, like many consumer products (think toilet paper), were out of stock almost everywhere but a generous family was able to secure 100 new tablets allowing all of the participants to experience an engaging and fulfilling online program with appropriate technology.

“We couldn’t have done it without them. Even then,” said Koch, “the tablets arrived in batches. Two or three days before camp started, I got the last shipment. I was biting my nails at many different points, trying to get these tablets for the kids. But I should have just relaxed and listened to when the donors said, ‘There are two things one can count on in this world: mathematics, and us.’”

She continued, “We didn’t tell the kids they could keep their tablets until the very end of camp, as a surprise. We wanted to give them this chance to demonstrate their responsibility by entrusting them with a university-owned tablet, and have them take good care of it.”

“When it was announced that we were able to keep the tablets, the kids were thrilled. One camper in the Zoom call unmuted and said, “Really?” and I could hear the amount of joy she had in the moment,” said Aamina Rehman, one of this summer’s high school TAs. “I’m sure these tablets will be especially useful for students who are not able to afford the technology needed for remote learning this upcoming year due to the pandemic.”

A team of Ypsi Math Corps campers meeting virtually this summer (2020).
Kindness, Multiplied

Louisa LaFarge (B.S. Biology, 1980) also stepped up to generously support the program this spring. LaFarge is a second-career educator who worked as a genetic researcher at U-M, then at Christie’s Fine Art Auctioneers in London and New York City, before eventually finding her passion for teaching. Now a high school AP Biology and Chemistry teacher in California, LaFarge learned about Math Corps this winter, just before the global pandemic forced students from her own and many other U.S. schools to finish the school year online. She found that a focus on being enthusiastic and warm, and making sure students felt comfortable, engaged, and encouraged—some of the key methods Math Corps employs—helped both students and teachers overcome some of the challenges of online learning. 

“I was drawn to Math Corps because it is demystifying a subject that can be so anxiety-producing for kids,” said LaFarge. “The neurology of the brain shows that if someone doesn’t feel safe or taken care of, they won’t be able to open up to learn. Math Corps is creating this important space in which to thrive.” 

The connections that middle and high school campers form with their college instructors is the heart of the program, and the great benefits are felt in both directions. Math Corps gives LSA undergraduates a chance to experience firsthand how their own work can make an impact on someone’s life and help to change the world.

“It is an amazing joy when a student ‘gets it,’” said LaFarge. “Math Corps also offers college students this fantastic opportunity to experience being a teacher and a mentor, which can be so rewarding.”

James Stevenson is currently an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. He joined Ypsi Math Corps in 2020 as a college instructor (CI).

“The Math Corps summer camp has been extremely impactful in the past due to its essence of love and kindness,” said Stevenson, a Detroit native who grew up in the Math Corps Detroit program. “However, this summer’s camp elevated me to a new level, as I was able to socially, yet virtually, interact with so many brilliant young students in the midst of COVID-19. As the world is going through changes, this camp shined a light of positivity through the minds of every single participant, regardless of age.” 

College Instructors Angel Phillips (left) and Paige Scholten (right) pose for a quick picture with Math Corps Camper Malik (center) at Goodie Bag pick up.
Taking Root

Looking back on Math Corps at U(M)’s virtual summer, what seemed a daunting experiment demonstrated, in the end, how a commitment to community-based programs can deeply benefit both the university and neighboring communities, and how quickly they can begin to build a lasting impact. The virtual format even enabled the program to accept approximately fifteen campers from outside of Ypsilanti, including kids from Detroit’s waitlist and from states as far afield as Arizona. Even with a shortened, half-day program designed to prevent Zoom-fatigue, this year’s campers more than doubled their average test scores. 

“Our kids really stepped up to show how much this program means to them, from taking extra special care of their tablets to just showing up to Zoom calls every day,” said Koch. “They proved, once again, that they are ready to meet these challenges. Now that we know that the program works both in-person and online, we’re really excited to welcome our Math Corps at (U) M family back next year.”

Sarah Koch always wears the camp’s kindness chain to lead the daily Assembly. The chain’s links celebrate the kids’ acts of kindness, and it’s amazing to watch the chain grow over the summer.

Parents of campers agreed. “My kids had a wonderful experience this summer, regardless of COVID and the new learning/teaching platform. At first, we weren’t sure how to establish a routine, but it all worked out with the proper guidance from the program,” noted the parent. “Thank you for providing us the opportunity to have this experience. If there is a program next year, we would love to come back.”

This middle school camper summed it up best, perhaps: “I really appreciate how positive Math Corps is. There is no other place that I have experienced where I felt so safe and judgement-free honestly. Everyone is just so genuine and values kindness, which you don’t experience in a lot of other environments like at school or other programs,” they said. “It’s just unique in that sense because all those superficial worries go away and you automatically feel happy and prioritize the right values of family and love.”

Math Corps at (U)M  is made possible by support from the College of LSA, the U-M Department of Mathematics, the National Science Foundation, as well as several generous donors. You can make a gift to the Ypsilanti Math Corps Fund (335705) online.

Learn more about Math Corps at U(M).

Visit the LSA Department of Mathematics.