At the beginning of the school year, Diana Vargas didn't even like math. Now, the junior at Boston's Brighton High School is busy plotting the course toward her future career: teaching ... math.
What happened? She joined the after-school math team simply "to get some extra help" - but she ended up with exponentially more than she expected.
Increasingly, such competitive math teams have become more than an after-school activity for the whiz-kid set. They're luring students who fall near the bottom or middle of their classes, and are seeking anything from a jump start in geometry to tutoring in trig. Many of them find that math made fun helps them soar ahead in ways they never expected.
Meeting every Wednesday, and also working on Saturdays, two teams from Brighton entered the Try-Math-a-Lon, an annual contest geared toward improving skills needed for the SAT. It's sponsored by the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), which works to attract underrepresented minorities to science and technology careers.
To help prepare students for the contest, it paired up with a local group that has a similar goal, the Massachusetts Pre-Engineering Program (MassPep). Diana's team included two seniors taking advanced-placement calculus and another junior who, like Diana, found math somewhat intimidating. But before long, they were mastering everything from exponents to logic.
This spring, the team basked in glory for weeks after returning victorious from Charlotte, N.C., where the national Try-Math-a-Lon brought together about 10,000 students, alumni, and corporate representatives.
The winning team met Boston Mayor Tom Menino. Even better, they were congratulated in the halls by students who once called them nerds. (And to those who still thought they were nerdy, team member Yinnette Sano had the reply: "I'm a nerd with $600!" - referring to scholarship money and gift certificates they won.)
For Diana and Yinnette, the other junior on the team, it wasn't just math skills that improved, but academic attitude. Diana went from B's to A's, and became a cheerful advocate for the importance of math.
"It does help you, logic-wise," she says. "For instance, if you have a word problem, you read and think about it ... and it helps you so much with everything - with English, with grammar - because it has an order."
That gain in students' confidence is what stands out to Lowell Hunt, a software engineer at Raytheon and a local NSBE representative. "Math is difficult because it builds from year to year, so if there are concepts you don't really understand from your earlier years, you just never really grasp it. And once you grasp a concept, all of a sudden, it just all makes sense to you."
Diana says that her fear yielded to confidence because of the one-on-one attention. "When I used to get involved with math, just like doing simple stuff, I would just overreact.... But I noticed that since I joined MassPep, I've been more at ease...."
She wants to be a teacher so she can help kids gain the understanding and inspiration that came to her a little late in the game. "As I was growing up, I wasn't taught well certain math things, or I was taught and I just don't remember, probably because the teacher didn't make it more interesting - so I'd like to do that with young people," she says.
For a time, the transformation Diana experienced rippled through the school and beyond, into an urban district that celebrates good news as if it were a rain in the midst of drought.
"If [math] seems hard at first, just keep on trying it; it will get much easier," Diana says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society