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Escondido freshmen do the math

July 8, 2016 GMT

At Orange Glen High School this week, students were busy building miniature cars out of mousetraps, and packing eggs to withstand a three-story drop.

Those activities were part of Escondido Union High School District’s math academy, designed to help students think about math in more creative, constructive ways. The academy is open to all incoming freshmen in the district, including those who can’t get enough of math, and others who need extra help.

It aims not only to reinforce key math content such as fractions and decimals, but also to boost students’ confidence and interest in the subject.

“I hope that they walk away from this program believing that math is enjoyable and believing that everyone is capable of doing math,” said Abi Leaf, math specialist for the high school district. “The intention is to help kids feel good about mathematics, to realize that math isn’t something to be afraid of.”

The program has been around for nine years, but is particularly pertinent now, as schools switch to new math curriculum under Common Core academic standards, which stress group work, discussion and debate. The math academy provides groundwork in those skills for students entering high school.

“I learned how to work together, how to have a conversation and how to participate in conversations (about math,)” said Naomy Reyes Marcia, 14. “I learned how to be more professional in math skills.”

Students worked in groups to securely pack their eggs and to build vehicles, using the spring action of mousetraps as motors. While the projects didn’t involve complex engineering or equations, they introduced students to aerodynamics and physics, along with the teamwork required to construct the items, said McCovey Staples, 14. They also toured their future high schools, and San Diego university campuses.

Throughout the four-week program, students discussed math problems, compared techniques and debated their conclusions, as part of a series of math practices that teachers call “habits of mind and interaction.”

For instance, students learned that “math reasoning is the authority” in debate and discussion, meaning that they must support their opinions and conclusions with mathematical facts. They were encouraged to try out different approaches to tackling math problems and then explain how they got their answers.

“When we did problems, everyone had different ways to do it, but in the end we all got the same answer,” said Janelle Harvey, 13, who said she participated in the math academy to improve her math skills so she can excel in her high school classes.

That kind of communication progressed over the past few weeks, said Susan Amoroso, a math teacher at Orange Glen, and one of the instructors in the summer program.

“When they’re working together, instead of just telling each other the answer they got, they’re more likely to explain how they got the answer and why it makes sense,” she said.

Furthermore, she said, they learned about the surprising upside of wrong answers.

“We talked about mistakes,” she said. “Not only do you learn from your mistakes, but your brain actually grows. Now they’re more comfortable sharing mistakes.”

The weeks of brain teasers culminated Thursday in a family celebration with a pizza and salad dinner, high school-themed decorations and contests.

Students competed to see whose mousetrap cars drive the farthest in a straight line, and dropped eggs by ladder from an Escondido city fire truck, and then calculated team points based on the number that remained unbroken. For Reyes Marcia, the program was an eye opener that showed her the possibilities of mathematics and her future education.

“I love this math academy,” she said. “It’s so much fun to do the mousetrap cars, the egg drop and to find out what we’re going to be learning next year.”

deborah.brennan@sduniontribune.com (760) 529-4941 Twitter@deborahsbrennan