Web Exclusives: On the Campus

October 10, 2007:

‘Boot camp' for math; new role for grad students

While incoming freshmen are off hiking in the Catskills Mountains or working at a soup kitchen in Trenton, something slightly different is happening at the Woodrow Wilson School. Incoming public policy and public affairs graduate students are completing math camp, a three-week summer program that provides rigorous training in preparation for the complex economics and statistics they will encounter through the master's and doctoral programs.

Math camp began 25 years ago, said program director Melissa Lee, in response to the need for a "refresher" course by students who had not studied math for from five to 12 years.

"We want students, obviously, who are committed to public service, who have worked in the field," said Lee. "So they have this wonderful background and great skills in the public service, but their math skills might not be where we want them to be."

One such case is Clare Sierawski. The MPA student received her bachelor's degree in environmental studies from the University of Pittsburgh before moving to Washington, D.C., to work with the U.S. Department of Transportation. She then worked on reforestation projects in India and Australia and conservation projects in Beijing.

"So it's like Beijing to math camp," said Sierawski. "I definitely was doing no calculus in Beijing."

Sierawski, who had not done any math courses since her senior year of high school, was placed into the "C" track covering calculus, into which most students are placed. The program has three other levels that range from basic algebra to multi-variable calculus to match the diversity of the students' backgrounds. Last year one student had passed the general examination for a doctorate in mathematics, but instead decided to move to public service. Among this year's "recruits" is a student who worked in the military and hadn't studied math in 10 years.

Math camp coursework includes three and a half hours a day of mathematics, five days a week for three weeks, with at least four hours of homework a day, Sierawski said. The school also offers classes in resumé building, diversity awareness, public speaking, and leadership that help the program create students who are not only mathematically literate, but equipped to relate these skills to the real world. "That made it all much more bearable," Sierawski said.

"Students ask really down-to-earth questions," said Yanliang Miao, a former nath camp student and now instructor. "You have to convey complex math concepts in plain language." That's especially challenging, he said, when in one day a class might cover as much material as would normally be taught in one or two weeks in a typical academic course.

Folasade John '09The students found the camp a good way to get to know each other before their graduate classes began, forming study groups and visiting the local ice cream shop for a homework break. "Misery loves company," Sierawski said, adding: "not that math camp was miserable."

– By Folasade John '09

With the addition of Whitman College and the new four-year residential college system, undergrads are in for a great variety of new living options. Thanks to one new program, however, graduate students can also look forward to new living choices.

Each of the six residential colleges will play host to 10 Resident Graduate Students (RSGs) for the first time this year. These grad students live alongside undergrads in regular residential college dorms, refurbished with kitchenettes to turn them into apartments. The RSGs also have meals plan giving them 125 meals per semester in the residential college dining hall.

The program is intended to bring graduate students and undergrads together, Mathey College Dean Steven Lestition explained. "One of the distinctive features of Princeton is having a very high-power, reputable graduate program, but for many years I think there's been a sense that there's not been a great connection with undergrads," he said. "We invited these particular grad students to live in the dorms because they seemed interested in getting to know the undergrads and revolving interests together."

Graduate students were given the opportunity to apply to be RSGs in January, and a pool of 120-odd candidates expressed interest – an impressive result for the first year of a new program.

Scott Breunig, a second-year grad student in molecular biology, was one of the candidates who made it through two rounds of interviews to be selected as an RSG in Butler College. Breunig said that he was attracted to living in a residential college because it reminded him of the sense of community he felt in his dorm halls as an undergrad at Notre Dame. "It's nice to have a neighborhood to come home to, full of people not necessarily in your department or year or from your geographic region," he said.

Another Butler RSG, Yun Kyung "Sophia" Kwon, already had a chance to acquaint herself with Butler College because she served as a graduate fellow for the college last year. Graduate fellows are similar to RSGs in that they participate in the residential college's special events, but unlike RSGs, they do not live in the college and do not have a meal plan there.

By Isia Jasiewicz '10Kwon, who is a third-year grad student in chemistry, said that she is excited to build upon her connection with the undergraduate community. "People always talk about the huge gap between grads and undergrads," she said, "and the whole point of RSGs is to integrate the two student bodies together to realize that we … have a lot to learn from each other."

– By Isia Jasiewicz '10


Photos by Hyunseok Shim ’08