High school outreach – Part 1

Dec 5, 2011   //   by Jenna Pinkham   //   Compass News, High School Outreach  //  1 Comment
Radical Monte Pi-thons

Radical Monte π-thons. Left to right: Drew Edelberg, Yongchan Kim, Ana Aceves, Salman Kahn, and Dimitri Dounas-Frazer. Not shown: Marvin Alcantara and Phillip Merlo.

Introduction by Dimitri Dounas-Frazer, grad student

Last summer, I was hanging out with a friend of mine, Armando Franco. Armando teaches math for the Making Waves Education Program, an after-school program that supports urban, low-income children on their path towards gaining acceptance to college. We started talking about working together, and he suggested that Compass might be able to help Making Waves with two projects: (1) taking high school juniors and seniors to college-level math and science classes, and (2) designing events for their fall math fair, called Radical Pi Day. In this post, I’d like to share with you how Compass participated in Radical Pi Day.

A group of six undergrads (Ana, Drew, Marvin, Phillip, Salman, and Yongchan) and one graduate student (me) got together to plan a couple events for Radical Pi Day. We decided to design two activities, one based on the Monty Hall Problem and another on Monte Carlo estimation of π by tossing coins on a checkerboard. (Note: Both activities were originally suggested by Joel Corbo, an awesome graduate student who has been working with Compass basically since its inception. Thanks, Joel!) These activities were chosen because they are somewhat counter-intuitive problems that can be understood using basic probability and geometry arguments. Plus, we were able to run an exciting game show, complete with glitz, glam, music, and prizes!

We called ourselves the “Radical Monte π-thons,” a name that incorporates all aspects of our project. We met every Tuesday at 8:30 pm. Sometimes we got together on Thursday afternoons, too. At our meetings, we learned probability, wrote computer programs, painted signs, and ate a lot of pizza. When it was time for the actual event, we piled in a car and headed to Richmond. That night, we put on an awesome (and educational) version of Monty Hall’s game show “Let’s Make a Deal!” Also, high school students determined the value of π/4 with 8% accuracy just by tossing a couple pennies onto a square grid. Well, okay… they tossed a couple hundred pennies, but it was still an impressive feat!

To share our experience with the rest of the Compass community, we decided to post our reflections in this blog. Below are contributions from Phillip, Yongchan, and Ana. Mr. Rooben Morgan, the coordinator of the Math Empowerment Program (MEP) at Making Waves, also sent us a summary of the event. Members of the Compass facebook group can find pictures of our adventure here.

The Monte π-thon project was an excellent way for me to immerse myself into Compass. As a freshman, this was my first way of participating in the group outside of the summer program and Physics 98, and it was a great experience. Every Tuesday for two months the group met and creatively (and cheerfully) crafted a design for a booth at Making Waves High School’s Radical π Day math fair. By working in the group, I learned quite a bit. Compass’ educational goal, as I understand it, is to develop a diverse and supportive community of science-minded thinkers. Now that I have actually worked to contribute positively as a part of that community I appreciate that aspiration a lot more.

Phillip Merlo, freshman

I was one of a handful of students who were interested in studying physics. I joined Compass at the end of summer 2011 and have attended various events, and gained the opportunity to participate in high school outreach. However, I wasn’t sure if I could manage to do high school outreach. Furthermore, I joined in the middle of the process and I didn’t know what was going on. Thus, I pretty much did what the other group members told me to do. In the mean time, I met with group members, discussed events and prepared some events/materials. Besides preparation, it was a great opportunity for me to socialize with other Compass teachers and students.

On the day of the fair, I went to a high school in Richmond, CA, with other Compass students and teachers. The size of the school was smaller than I expected. I, along with other members, did what we had planned before. We set up the math-related games called “Monty π-thon”. Surprisingly, high school students were interested in trying out some of our games. It seemed they were enjoying themselves, and our prizes quickly ran out. The event lasted about 2 hours, and students seemed interested.

I was glad at the end because high school students were interested and enjoyed our outreach. I hope this simple outreach fosters high school students’ curiosity and leads them to become physicists.

Yongchan Kim, freshman

I slowly gathered my belongings after my 4pm class on Wednesday, Nov. 2nd and made my way toward the door. I had half an hour to relax and mentally prepare for what was to come. I left my apartment dressed ready to impress, I knew I wasn’t going to have time to get ready between the end of my class and departure time. I decided I could go for a snack, so I headed over to the GBC on Sproul for frozen yogurt. I figured the rest would be hungry so I bought a few snacks for the trip to Richmond. After weeks of preparation the day had arrived. We, the Radical Monte π-Thons were going to a math fair in Richmond hosted by Making Waves. We had run over the scenario time and time again. We were ready.

I finally made my way to the meeting spot at 4:20pm. I knew I was early so I settled down on a bench nearby to finish my frozen yogurt and contemplate on a trip I was about to embark on. Around 4:30pm I see Dimitri coming through the door, big smile on his face, fancy pants on, and arms full of our materials. I quickly rushed to help him with our things and carried it over to the car he rented. However, by 4:45pm we were still in Berkeley waiting for a team member. Once we realized that he wasn’t going to make it we departed map in hand and with excitement for what lay ahead.

We arrived 15 minutes late, but quickly set up our booth. I must admit it was not what I expected. I had envisioned a big cafeteria with plenty of booths on square tables lined up along the wall. Instead, I was encountered with round tables spread out sporadically in a relatively small cafeteria. Nonetheless, we adapted to what we had. I went to my station ready to work with the first student. When we finally announced we were ready, the students began to come over, some more shy than others. I could tell they were interested in what we were doing. Our multiple monitors and game show music were hard to ignore. I kindly asked the first student if he’d like to play. I caught the hesitation, but it took little convincing. And thus Radical Monte π-Thons made their debut.

After a while, students were beginning to catch on. More and more were deciding to switch their choice because they saw a reward, the probabilities flashing in the background also influenced their decision. Half an hour later, we split off into groups to offer an explanation of the benefits of switching buckets. I must admit I did not fully understand the probability and reasoning behind Monte Hall, but I received help from a team member. Once we gave the explanation, the students knew what was best. Many of them stuck to the initial strategy of changing their option. Students kept playing over and over until they got enough money to pay for a coveted prize. But before the 2 hours were up, the number of students interested in playing had dwindled, especially because we had run out of prizes.

By the end of the night, the students were happy and we were happy. We gathered our belongings, bid the students farewell and departed to Berkeley content at our work. I arrived with a different set-up in mind, but as a team we worked together to adapt to what we were given. We worked together to teach the students of Making Waves something new and create a new ripple of knowledge.

Ana Aceves, sophomore

The Math Empowerment Program (MEP) at Making Waves Education Program and Compass jointly presented Radical Pi on 11/2/11. Radical Pi has become a mainstay of MEP’s annual activities, where the teachers in the department organize a fun space for students to explore math in a variety of ways, and not as a series of algorithms to be learnt. Some of the activities have included logic, puzzles, bridge/tower-building competitions, mandala coloring, estimation of volume weight, and quantity (how many jelly beans are in the jar?).

This year, in addition to the many usual fares, Compass representatives manned two tables at the event: 1) Monty Hall “Let’s Make a Deal” and 2) Monte Carlo approximation of Pi. Students were able to interact with undergrads from UC Berkeley and learn about Statistics and Geometry concepts in a fun and interactive way. About 35 high-school students attended the event and tried many of the games, and experienced numbers in very new ways. By helping students see that math can be experienced and utilized in many ways, MEP hopes to reduce anxiety and alienation that is often seen amongst high school students in urban communities such as Richmond.

One of the core philosophies of MEP is to help student develop an appreciation for math, and Radical Pi is one of the more fun events that marries math/numbers and fun/exploration. Students come and engage in the activities voluntarily, without pressure of performance or accuracy. Very often, they realize they have a capacity for mathematical applications outside the classroom model. In the future, we hope to incorporate more distinctive [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] activities that speak to knowledge and career fields.

Rooben Morgan, MEP coordinator

1 Comment

  • I think that anytime young adults can reach out to teens in a positive way like this, good things will happen. Teens are very bright, they learn very readily. But they sort of live in a fantasy world. So when you can intrigue them by showing them the real world (science, engineering, actual accomplishments of actual people instead of fiction), they not only absorb the information but they also start to take themselves more seriously, giving their own ideas more credibility the more they have their feet on the ground, so to speak. Anyway, what you offer to your students is both your knowledge and your example, and probably the latter is as important as the former. Kudos to the Compass Project and all the volunteers making it possible.

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