Camp makes calculus kid-friendly

Mountain View private school teaches advanced math, science to youngsters

A unique school that teaches high-level science and math concepts to students years earlier than is typical in public schools has opened its second location in Mountain View.

The school's founders, Ryan Nurmela and Michael Finnegan, claim that by harnessing a technique known as inquiry-based learning they can teach calculus and quantum physics to kids as young as 13 years old. And while one expert on middle school science education says he is "dubious" of the pair's claims, Nurmela insists that teaching such concepts to young minds is not only possible -- it is imperative.

"We have to get real science and math into the classroom at a young age, so students are getting the training they need to be successful," Nurmela says. "Our standard in this country is too low."

Appropriately named Quantum Camp, the school first opened in Berkeley in 2010. Originally, Nurmela and Finnegan -- who met through their previous job teaching middle school science and math in Oakland -- intended to write a book on quantum physics.

Nurmela has conducted graduate studies in quantum field theory and taught entry-level physics as a lecturer at California State University, San Francisco. Finnegan holds a doctoral degree in materials science from the University of Wisconsin.

As the two brainstormed, and Nurmela related his experiences teaching complex math to low-income middle school students in Richmond, the two developed the idea of Quantum Camp.

"Students are much smarter than we give them credit for," Nurmela says, recalling how the kids in his math classes ate up the linear algebra problems he assigned them. He says that his students -- none of whom were exceptionally gifted -- were "quite capable" of learning complex mathematical principals in 45 minutes. "They really excelled when I would ask them to achieve beyond what their normal expectations were."

The secret, Nurmela says, is inquiry-based learning -- a technique of instruction that begins with a real problem and prompts students to use mathematical principals they understand to build equations to come up with a solution.

"It's not just the level of science that we are doing," Nurmela says. "It's the methodology we employ. Science and even mathematics are best learned through real examples. When a student sees something firsthand they don’t ask 'Why do I have to know this?' That was always a question I hated answering in public schools. Knowledge should be obvious."

Jonathan Osborne, a professor at Stanford University who specializes in the teaching and learning of science isn't so sure. Though he is hesitant to pass judgment without better understanding Nurmela and Finnegan's methods, Osborne says, "My reaction, off the top of my head, is it sounds ambitious."

He says he is willing to accept that students might achieve some basic understanding of the concepts of quantum physics and calculus by taking a course at Quantum Camp. However, Osborne cautions, "In order to engage in calculus you need to have an understanding of other concepts. These concepts take time to develop."

And the time it takes these concepts to develop and fully crystallize in an individual's mind must be measured in years, not weeks or even months, Osborne says.

"I don't want to put down what they are doing," Osborne says. But, the idea that someone in junior high could develop a 12th-grade level of understanding in either calculus or quantum physics is unrealistic, he says.

However, according to Nurmela, students of Quantum Camp, which only takes kids in 5th through 10th grades, are achieving a level of understanding in these courses similar to that of a senior in an advance placement class.

He says the most driven students -- those who not only take the course, but complete the supplemental take-home assignments -- are gaining that level of competency. Nurmela hopes to have the data to prove his assertions by the end of the year.

By that time, if all goes according to plan, Quantum Camp, which started out as a summer program, will be turning into a fully accredited school, with the ability to graduate students with the necessary requirements to attend the University of California and California State University systems, as well as to administer College Board-sanctioned AP tests.

"There was such a groundswell for this idea," Numela says. Three years ago, as he and Finnegan were putting together the idea for Quantum Camp, they envisioned forming it into a full-fledged school in a decade's time. But with an outpouring of support from parents dissatisfied with the public school system, what began as a camp is looking more like a campus.

Numela promises "a history program unlike any history program anyone has seen anywhere" by the fall of 2012, and more humanities and language arts courses to come.

Currently, Quantum Camp offers a summer program, an after-school program and day courses that are primarily attended by home-school students.

The school charges by the course. The 7th-10th grade science course is $695 for 30 hours of class time over 10 weeks; courses in pre-algebra on through calculus for 6th-10th grade are $595 for 30 hours over 10 days; Quantum Kids, the school's K-5th grade program is $395 for 20 hours of instruction.

Nurmela says that outsourcing engineering and other tech-related jobs to other countries is driven in large part by a dearth American mathematical prowess. That is not due to a lack of interest in science- and math-heavy jobs in this country, he says. Rather, it is the result of a school system that is failing to teach these concepts.

"We have to train students early on to do science and mathematics," he says. "If they aren’t getting trained they aren’t going to get good at it, and if you’re not getting good science and math training in middle school, you are missing out."

An open house will be held on Aug. 18 at the Mountain View Quantum Camp, 2065 West El Camino Real, Suite C. More information can be found on the school's website.


Like this comment
Posted by James
a resident of Whisman Station
on Aug 11, 2011 at 2:10 pm

I would like to see MVWSD enhance one or more of the elementary and middle schools into STEM Magnet Schools. Mountain View is in one of the Tech Meccas of the World, the schools should reflect that.

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