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Math-Science Honors Program changes young students' lives

October 14, 2010

The high school students call it a boot camp. In the middle of summer they’re in an ASU classroom by 8 a.m., grinding out 12 hours of college algebra, pre-calculus and calculus with analytic geometry.

No cell phones, video games or iPods. Quizzes and problem sessions every afternoon. Tutoring every night. No walking around on campus. Bed check at 10:30 p.m.

Sound like a teenage nightmare? Actually, it’s one of the most competitive and successful summer programs on campus.

The ASU Math-Science Honors Program celebrates 25 years of changing young students’ lives this year, having channeled more than 2,300 first-generation and underrepresented minority students through the program. Virtually all participants go on to graduate from high school, and about 95 percent enroll in college, many earning degrees in math, science and engineering.

Trachette “Tracé” Jackson, a program alumna from 20 years ago, was the first in her family to attend college after graduating from Mesa High School. Now, she’s a professor of mathematics at the University of Michigan, using mathematical models and model-driven experiments to advance cancer research.

She attributes her success to the program, and to the late Joaquin Bustoz, an ASU math professor who founded the program in 1985.

“The Math-Science Honors Program and Dr. Bustoz are the reasons I have made it as far as I have today,” she says. “The program gave me every type of support, financial and emotional, and enabled me to complete my bachelor’s from ASU and my doctorate (in applied mathematics from University of Washington).

“Every experience in the program taught me things that I still use in my everyday life as a teacher, researcher, mentor and educator.”

Michael Garcia, an ASU mechanical engineering graduate student, had planned to make a career in the military before he was accepted to the summer program in 2003 as a student at Westview High School in Avondale. Until then most of his teachers had written him off as a slacker, though one teacher saw enough potential to recommend him for the program.

He was shocked by the rigor of the pre-calculus classes, and by the intense schedule. The “boot camp” attitude is passed down from one year’s participants to the next, he says, since ASU students from the program are tutors for the high school students.

”It was the most rigorous, academically-challenging and stimulating environment I’ve ever been in, before or since,” says Garcia, who was head calculus tutor during the summers while earning his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering.

“The program shaped my academic discipline, in terms of homework and time management. It shaped my work ethic, that’s for sure. Out of my high school graduating class of about 565 students, I’m one of only a handful who got a college degree.”

Garcia graduated summa cum laude and won a prestigious National Science Foundation fellowship for graduate study, one of the most competitive awards in the nation. He plans to become a university professor and to help develop emerging technologies.

About 350 Arizona high school students apply for 100 spaces in the summer program each year, bolstered by letters of recommendation from their teachers, test scores and grades. ASU coordinators travel all over the state to recruit applicants, especially from rural areas, outlying communities and urban schools where many students meet the criteria.

Professor Bustoz wanted to increase the number of underrepresented minority students who enter college and major in science and math when he founded the program. In 1993 just three percent of degrees in both fields went to Hispanic and Native American students, for instance.

In 1996 the program broadened its focus to include students who meet the program’s academic and socio-economic criteria and are first-generation college bound. Since its inception participants have earned more than 900 ASU degrees, with hundreds of other students attending such universities as Yale, Princeton, Stanford and MIT.

Entering as high school sophomores and juniors, they earn college credit during the five- and eight-week summer sessions, over two successive years. Living in ASU residence halls, taught by university professors and mentored by current ASU students, they learn confidence, discipline and hard work.

Senior program coordinators Cindy Barragan Romero and Rebeca Ronstadt-Contreras continue to mentor them once they enter ASU, reminding them of financial aid deadlines, tutoring opportunities and resume workshops.

The program has produced dozens of local high school math teachers, who continue the chain by mentoring young students and recommending promising applicants.

“Five of us teachers at Carl Hayden High School are from the ASU Math-Science Honors Program, including our department chair,” says Eira Rodriguez, math teacher who was in the program 1988-1989. “It’s an amazing program. You meet other motivated students like yourself, which isn’t true in high school. You realize how much hard work is necessary.

“All the little things Dr. Bustoz used to tell us, I use them with my kids, like ‘If you get a low score, work harder. If you don’t work for it, you won’t get it.’ In the program I learned to persevere, to keep working at something until I got it.”

Dang Phan met his future wife when he entered the program 13 years ago, as a first-generation student from a single parent home. Now he’s a math teacher at Westwood High School in Mesa, and she teaches biology in Gilbert.

“I can’t say enough about how the program affects kids,” says Phan, who recruits young people to apply. “I see kids in my situation get this opportunity, and it’s a good feeling.”