Young Scholars Program offers a rich mathematics education

University Communications

In the summer of 1988, 15 seventh-grade students from across Chicago convened at the University of Chicago campus, forming the inaugural class of the Young Scholars Program, an exploratory mathematics program. Having recently completed its 28th year, more than 2,000 students from grades seven through 12 have now participated in the program’s summer and Saturday classes, in which they tackle challenging geometry and number theory problems taught by distinguished UChicago scholars.

The Young Scholars Program has helped students obtain a broader sense of what an authentic mathematics education entails, thanks to the late Paul Sally, professor in mathematics, said Julienne Au, a former participant who is now a program co-director and instructor. According to Au and fellow program coordinators, Sally’s vision was to serve the broader community by exposing Chicagoland students to mathematical topics not covered in standard school curricula.

The objective of the program is distinct from typical math acceleration programs in which students are taught specific content meant to secure success in higher-level math classes or standardized exams. Instead, students are taught advanced material that does not interfere with what they will learn back at school, all the while making college-level material accessible to them at a young age, said Diane Herrmann, a senior lecturer in mathematics who has been involved in the Young Scholars Program since its inception.

“We want students to get a broader sense of what mathematics is,” said Herrmann, who co-founded the program with Sally. The material broadens students’ educational horizons and has the ability to make a lasting mark in career choices, as seen among current program instructors. Both Au and Maryanthe Malliaris, another alumna of the program, have chosen careers in mathematics. Au is a teacher for Chicago Public Schools, and Malliaris is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago.

Highly competitive program

The mathematics that the Young Scholars Program covers is not easy, but it is one of the reasons students are so eager to participate in the program. John Boller, a co-director of the program, said summer slots are highly competitive, receiving more than 300 applications for approximately 100 spots. As part of the application, students must submit an essay explaining why they want to participate in, or return to, the program.

“The responses that are really memorable are the kids who say their experience of YSP was one of the first times they ever felt really challenged,” said Au.

In addition to the thrill of finding problems participants cannot solve right away, the program provides youth a space to interact and collaborate with others like them—students from diverse backgrounds who enjoy an intellectual challenge. Especially among girls and students from underrepresented backgrounds not reflected in the field of mathematics, finding others with similar interests reassures students that it is okay to be themselves, said Herrmann.

Jitka Stehnova, the program’s newest co-director, agreed. She said that while younger female students are occasionally shy about asking questions, in the Young Scholars Program they can approach undergraduate women counselors during small problem-solving sessions. Stehnova believes interactions with these degree-seeking mentors in UChicago’s mathematics department help students envision the educational paths that can lead to a math career.

Above all, the program offers unfettered exposure to higher education. It allows students to be “open to the possibility that they could succeed in a place like the University of Chicago,” said Herrmann. She thinks such exposure at a young age makes a significant impression on students.

Exhilarating experience

Upon reflecting of her time as a participant in the program, Malliaris noted, “One of the things I found most exhilarating was the chance to experience conditions like those of graduate school or research.”

Herrmann said that the participants' parents consistently praise the program. In addition to lauding their children’s accomplishments, “parents are often shocked to see what their kids can do and learn outside of their regular classroom,” she added.

Au aptly summarizes the Young Scholars Program’s spirit and attributes: “Really meaningful problem solving is not about who can solve a problem the fastest. It’s about this idea that there are hard problems. Some problems will take a week to solve, but you learn how to do that at YSP.”

To learn about the program, please contact Robert Fefferman, director of the Young Scholars Program at rfefferm@uchicago.edu, or program co-directors John Boller at boller@math.uchicago.edu and Jitka Stehnova at stehnova@math.uchicago.edu.