Prof. Morgin Jones Williams, right, works with students, from left, Johnniya Busby, Jontae’ Jenkins, Leslie Cervantes in a math camp study session. GWYNETH J. SAUNDERS

For 25 Ridgeland-Hardeeville High School students attending math camps conducted by professors at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort, what they experienced was not what they expected.

“It’s more fun than what I thought it would be. I thought they were being a little sarcastic saying it would be fun. But it actually has been fun,” said Emely Camargo.  “I thought it was going to be all books, hard problems, and a lot of worksheets. But they’ve helped explain the concepts of it in a fun way. …”

Camargo was one of 12 students attending the second of two camps that took place in July on the university’s three Beaufort County campuses.

The 10-day residential camps were planned and coordinated by USCB Associate Professor of Mathematics Volkan Sevim; his team of Davide Fusi and Morgin Jones Williams, USCB assistant professors of mathematics; and teaching assistant Jennifer Oveido. The program was funded through a grant from the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry ($33,075), a $25,000 gift from the Block 3 Family Fund – a fund of the CFL, a $10,000 internal gift of support from the USCB Office of Academic Affairs, and transportation costs were paid by the Jasper County School District.

Instead of crafts, campfires and canoeing, the students attending USCB’s Math Opportunities in the Summer (MOS) received a “swag bag” backpack containing pens, masks, cups, notebooks, a camp math book, hand sanitizer, and a thumb drive – all marked with USCB logos. For the next 10 days, they stayed in the Bluffton campus dormitories, were provided three meals a day, issued linens and towels for their rooms, and found plenty of snacks in the common areas.

“The idea was fun, hands-on, students are engaged, real world problems are solved,” said Sevim. “Students are learning math and science and technology at the same time. And enjoying themselves with evening activities while experiencing college life.”

The summer enrichment program was designed to encourage pursuit of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, increase problem-solving and analytical skills, and build math skills for college and the workplace while expanding understanding of mathematics.

Halfway through the second camp, the participants were gaining a better grasp of the subject.

“The camp made math a lot easier than it seemed,” said Tariq Nunes.

Math was made easier through learning about real-life activities where math skills were applied every day. Each day’s sessions provided hands-on opportunities to apply those new skills.

Veterinarian Josh Mitchum, co-owner of Riverwalk Animal Hospital, spoke with the students about why he became a vet, and how he uses mathematics on a daily basis to determine how much medicine he needs to treat his clients.

Mitchum explained that he uses the same routine with every patient so that he doesn’t miss something in his diagnosis.

“The most important thing is understanding the problem,” he said. “Once you understand the problem, the rest is easy.”

The students then applied ratios and proportions, percentages, and unit conversion to determine the correct doses of medicine for actual patient cases. They also learned there are different ways of arriving at the same correct answer.

“I was thinking about coming to learn new things about math. That’s basically what I was expecting. I learned there’s more than one way to work a math problem,” said Johnniya Busby. “It’s going to help me with a lot of things, like in the medical field, because we have to know math, and I want to become a surgeon.”

During the activity sessions on computer coding, students used their new USB thumb drives and learned how to write a program that involved the thickness of a pizza (which was dinner that night). They also learned that the people who make the apps for their phones have a very lucrative career – some making more than $100,000 annually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Computer programming, all of this stuff that has to deal with computers – it’s all about developing the skills you have. It’s about doing the same thing over and over until it becomes second nature. That’s all we do,” said Dr. Ron Erdei, assistant professor of computer science. “We develop these basic skills, and we do them in different environments. They’re very achievable, and there’s a lot of overlap in computer science and math.”

Erdei pointed out that all of the computer sciences are expected to grow 11% overall, with cybersecurity projected for 30%.

“Why do I point this out to you? I want you all to consider this. We need good people like you. We need good people for a lot of reasons,” Erdei said. “Computer science requires attention to detail. It helps you take big problems and break them down into individual steps, and do those steps in sequence.”

Erdie told the students they can practice this problem-solving technique in everyday life: “When you go out into the world, into the work force, your church, your community center, planning a family event – you take a big project and you break it into sequences, and you get really good at it. These are transferable skills.”

It wasn’t all classroom work, even if the activity sessions introduced unique insight into how different career fields apply mathematics. While applying math to a finance project, a field trip took the students to the Kazoo Factory in Beaufort. A boat ride with Vagabond Cruises on Hilton Head Island helped to reinforce science concepts.

Evening activities gave the students a chance to relax and enjoy a variety of activities, including make-your-own lava lamps and tie-dye shirts, outdoor activities such as basketball, volleyball and tennis, board games, reading night, trivia night with prizes, a dance social, and a movie and popcorn.

The math camp is a first for USCB and for the Jasper County high school, and Dr. Paula Murphy, College and Career Dual Enrollment Coordinator for Ridgeland-Hardeeville High School, is already planning on how to continue it in 2022 – possibly combining language skills with mathematics.

“Under the dual enrollment program, students are taking certain classes and getting high school credit and college credit. It’s either free or subsidized by the district so it doesn’t cost students anything,” Murphy said. The program gives students a head start in thinking about their future.

The camp is a part of the dual enrollment. “They’re not getting credit but they’re getting the experience,” Murphy said, “which is wonderful, of being able to step inside a classroom on a college campus, and to live in a dorm – not just to see a dorm, but to actually live and experience it, and then to be able to interact with college professors.”

Murphy said the students who attended the first camp at the beginning of July were already asking when USCB is coming to visit them at the school. The camp had an impact on those attending the second camp at the end of July.

“This wasn’t what I thought it would be. They far exceeded my expectations. I feel quite good about coming to this camp,” said Ariel Monge. “I find that math is more interesting to me than it has been in a while. Probably help me move on through school, help me figure a few things out. Now that I know a few things about math, I’m thinking about new career choices maybe if I change the one I’m going to right now. My current plan is to become a music composer or music teacher and music director. There is a lot of math in music, so this will be very helpful.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.