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Mark Twain IS239 test prep, Bay Academy IS98 test prep
Tinker Zone
347-984-2059

WHO ARE WE?

In Spring 2008, a handful of MIT graduates decided it would be a fabulous idea to bring the unique flavor of our alma mater to elementary and middle school students in our respective cities. While we wanted to help kids to become better problem-solvers, we balked at the idea of simply teaching young minds how to work math problems. There are enough people already doing that. Instead, we wanted to address problem-solving in a comprehensive and integrated way.

WHAT IS INTEGRATED STEM?

Integrated STEM enhances school-based instruction and explores the ways in which grade-level Science and Math are used in Engineering, Computer Science, and technology. Topics like Graph Theory and Math Logic, which were not considered "grade-level" for elementary and middle schools, are adapted by us and introduced in ways that a 3rd grader can understand and use. Integrated STEM ushers kids into the era of 21st Century problem-solving where learning becomes more contextualized, authentic, and meaningful. Math makes SENSE, and thinking becomes targeted when students learn to apply problem-solving strategies and Computational Thinking to solve difficult (complex) or unfamiliar problems. The skill-set becomes portable when kids realize that the same line of thinking developed in math class can be applied to coding, engineering design, and scientific inquiry. The benefits are very significant and very real.

OUR TRACK RECORD

While we do not teach to standardized tests, our program has had a positive impact on student performance. By correcting students' MATHEMATICAL THINKING and approach to problem-solving, we are able to help them turn things around.

Meaghan had a rough 3rd grade year and switched schools at year-end. Because she lacked the 3rd grade foundation she earned a "1" in math for the first marking period of 4th grade. We started working with Meaghan in February, and by the end of April she showed such a significant change in school performance that her teacher asked to see our math problem sets. Meaghan went from a "1" to a "4" in math. By the end of the schoolyear, two of her cousins asked to enroll with us "because if Meaghan can get a 4, we can too!"

Alex was top of his 5th grade class in math. He knew procedural math very well and got straight A's at school. During the Fall, Alex came to us for Math/Computer prep for entry to Mark Twain and Bay Academy. Despite his excellent performance at school, Alex answered only 2 out of 15 questions correctly on our Math Diagnostic Test. The answers seemed to be just out of his grasp even though the topic was familiar. He never showed work, did not use diagrams to help him think through complex problems, and critical thinking and number sense were his Achilles heel. That Fall, Alex worked harder to pass our quizzes than he did in his entire life. It was challenging, but he persevered and gained entry to Bay Academy. Today, Alex is in high school and we still hear from him from time to time. "I still use your problem-solving strategies, and they help me to think the problem through. I can break down difficult questions and solve them when others cannot. I learned a lot from your program."

Every now and again, we get requests for SAT prep. Zoe came to us with a PSAT score that was so low that her guidance counselor said when she called a meeting of the low-scorers: "I don't advise any of you to apply to colleges that take the SAT. Here's a list of colleges you should consider instead." Zoe was devastated and her mother insisted she should give the top colleges a shot. "Can you help us?" We worked Zoe relentlessly, encouraging her to apply analytical thought across all subject areas. In the not-so-distant past, the SAT maxed out at 2400, and Zoe's PSAT results predicted a score of less than 1000 based on her skill set. Against all odds and against her guidance counselor's expectation, Zoe scored was 1910 on her SAT. Her guidance counselor was floored! This year, Zoe graduates John's Hopkins University, where she was accepted to the preMed program.

Nothing thrills us more than hearing a student speak in awe of his or her accomplishment. Like Meaghan, Lavr had a rough 3rd grade year with respect to mathematics. Also like Meaghan, he changed schools after the end of 3rd grade. Unlike Alex, Lavr was not top of his class in math. Lavr came to us in September, just at the beginning of the school year. About two months into our program Lavr made an announcement: "other children at school are asking ME now! They're coming to me to solve math problems!" There was such awe in both voice and expression that we could not help but feel proud of him. Lavr graduates Mark Twain this year.

We could fill this page with example after example about kids rising to the challenge and overperforming across different subject areas. The key is to learn to problem-solve, and to realize that problem-solving is not limited to Math. It is a mindset. What these kids also learned was a lesson in perseverance. We hammered home HOW to learn, how to think your way through a problem until you reach the answer. Each year, our kids gain entry to schools like Mark Twain and Bay Academy. Our instruction in integrated STEM has always surpassed the Mark Twain level as we seek to steer young minds towards independent thinking, innovation, and creativity.

OUR CURRICULUM

In the past decade, we have tutored thousands of elementary and middle-school students in math, technology, computer science, science, and engineering. Tutoring allowed us to study the various school curricula, to observe gaps in problem-solving skills, and to develop our own curriculum. Each of our class offerings is an integrated approach to STEM, with a strong emphasis on problem-solving in mathematics that highlights the relationship between mathematical concepts and computer science. Students also learn how computers store and process data, and the math that is relevant to these phenomena. They understand why it is important to know about the properties of prime numbers, the relevance of place value, metric prefixes and scientific notation.

SUPPORTING TOPICS

In addition to math and science, students learn Computational Thinking, which is essentially a toolbox of problem-solving techniques. With the power of decomposition, problems that seem overwhelming at first become much more approachable for students.

They learn Systems Thinking, the art of visualizing and analyzing how systems work, how all the parts of a project work together, and how different systems interact. How do the different "engineers" interact? How do they communicate ideas? They turn to each other for help, deep-think the "rules", make connections to the problem at hand and solve the problem.

Programming in SCRATCH is taught in every math course, and SCRATCH is used as a problem-solving tool through which students observe the link between thinking involved in grade-level math and the thinking skills needed for coding.

Grade-appropriate Graph Theory introduces students to computer science and to the difference between Computer Science and Coding. Graph Theory is also used as a math problem-solving tool.

DO WE USE MOEMS AND MATH KANGAROO?

We design our own problems, but over the years, we have used past exams from MOEMS and Math Kangaroo in problem-solving. However, our style of problem-solving is non-traditional. When we do "borrow" a problem or few from a MOEMS book or from a Kangaroo set, our students are expected to solve each problem from multiple perspectives. We carefully handpick problems by type so that for a single problem, one student might write a recursive formula, another might set up the problem to be solved using arrays, and yet another student might solve the problem using grade-appropriate graph theory. Students then write programs in SCRATCH, sometimes asking for user input, to solve the problem at hand. Upon completion, students critique each other's work and provide feedback. While we may sometimes use a MOEMS or Math Kangaroo problem, the approach to problem-solving is comprehensive, and designed to demonstrate that mathematical concepts are transferable to computer programming specifically and to computer science in general.

WHAT DOES THE "GAME DESIGN" CLASS COVER?

This class allows students to apply coding techniques as they learn them (abstraction, recursive calls, more recursive calls, arrays, Boolean logic, etc.). They also learn that a game is a system made up of many different parts that fit together in a logical manner -- Systems Thinking is involved. At the planning stage, students decide the rules for their version of the game, how it will be scored, and how the parts interact. They create the parts and address key ideas like realistic movement and reactions (physics). Mostly grade level math is used, but students also learn about variables and how to assign them. In fact, Game Design provides a very realistic view of what variables are and how they are used.

Visit the GAME DESIGN page and play Blasteroids. Notice how the white spaceship moves; fast at first, then slows down for action. This instance of the game is the 6th revision of a team of 5th grade students. There are more advanced versions of the game (some explosions are truly glorious!), but this is the one we currently showcase.

Students create other games as well; the features of each game is a team decision.

ISN'T WEB DESIGN A BIT TOO ADVANCED FOR CHILDREN IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL?

If your son or daughter can write a sentence, they can code in HTML, JavaScript, and CSS. Once they learn the tags and how to layout a web page, it's not difficult at all. Practice, logical thinking and common sense are all they need. Web design teaches kids how search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo work, and how search results are generated. In our Basic Web Design class, students learn how to apply rules and syntax (logical thinking), how to troubleshoot (analyze), and how to problem-solve. They learn how computers store and render colors. They explore the relationship between Place Value as learned in school and converting between different numeral systems. In Basic Web Design, creativity meets Systems Thinking, as students design the parts that work together in very stylistic ways. They also perform basic calculations like percents and learn about floating decimals.

WHO ARE OUR TARGET STUDENTS?

These classes are designed to target 4th through 9th grade students. Grades 4-5, 6-7 and 8-9 take classes together. Can 3rd graders attend? Yes, if they are advanced enough; we have enrolled a few who are. We are not looking to enroll "superkids"! We want everyday kids who are interested in developing and applying 21st century problem-solving to math, science, and technology in a comprehensive and integrated way.

WHAT ARE OUR FUTURE GOALS?

Students enroll with us before and beyond middle-school test prep. We currently offer math-technology and science-technology classes to students in grades 4 through 9. Top performers will be invited to join our Young Engineers Math Circle, where they can explore higher level math, including Discrete Mathematics, with subtopics such as Number Theory, Combinatorics, Logic and Graph Theory, and with sub-subtopics such as Modular Arithmetic, Public-key Cryptography, proof by contradiction, proof by induction, and the Pigeonhole Principle. All instruction will be at grade level. In addition, students discover the depth to which mathematical thinking and math itself drives Computer Science and Technology. Participants in the Young Engineers Math Circle pay a nominal fee of $288 per semester. Their first major goal will be to prepare for AMC 8 and AMC 10/12. Students hoping to participate in the Fall should take the Entrance Exam in mid-September.

 

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