Darien teens create math enrichment, tutoring program

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox

Got math?

James Strong and Ming Wu — two rising Darien high school seniors, sure do.

The 17 year olds, who have been friends since seventh grade, created a volunteer math enrichment program designed to challenge younger students in the field of mathematics.

They started the program, called Strength from Numbers, in 2017 when they were high school freshman. It has grown every year. It has since expanded into helping students who need extra math support.

Due to the pandemic, the program has now gone virtual and the boys intend to continue it over the coming school year.

For more information on Strength From Numbers, visit Strengthfromnumbers.com.

The need

James, who is president and co-founder of the club, said while there are a lot of resources to help support students who are struggling, there isn’t as much to enrich the kids who are excelling.

“We wanted to take the most talented kids and push them in the field of math,” he said.

According to Ming, “smart kids sometimes can go through elementary school and not feel challenged at all.”

“We wanted to bring that same feeling as we get — to them — so they would have an opportunity to be challenged,” said Ming, who is co-founder.

“I knew there was a group of kids who, with a little push, would be happy to go further in math,” James added.

Forming the program

When forming the program, Ming said the first goal was to help children who are struggling in math in towns where they might not have the resources for hiring tutors.

The boys began teaching fifth graders initially at Julia Stark Elementary School in Stamford.

After receiving a lot of positive feedback, they expanded to two more elementary schools — Toquam and KT Murphy — the following year, and added four more Darien High School students: Andrew Qin, Marcus Feng, Jonathan Strong, and Luke Smith.

They organized Stamford's district's first elementary school math competition between these schools.

Currently, they’re teaching open-enrollment online summer sessions for both support and enrichment to any students entering grades six through nine.

For the fall, they’re looking to expand into the Darien school district to help middle schoolers keep their math skills sharp.

“We are looking at helping Middlesex Middle School students. The Darien math department has expressed interest in having us involved this school year, particularly in the middle school,” James said. “Nevertheless, we will continue to be in the Stamford elementary schools, and possibly middle schools, this coming year. We also want to support those outside of the Fairfield, Connecticut area if they sign up on our website.”

The program

Prior to the pandemic, every Friday afternoon when they were finished with their own classes, the boys would drive to the different schools, in pairs of two.

Math topics they teach include algebra, geometry, and advanced math skills such as number theory, complex graphing, and logic.

To develop a teaching method, James said he looked at the most effective teachers he’s had to see what their teaching style was.

Math is very much like a pyramid, according to James. “It grows on itself,” he said. “If the foundation isn’t too stable, it’s hard to learn things down the line.”

The boys created their own curriculum. They teach the same lesson to all, and make sure everyone is on the same page.

At the beginning of each session, “we try to come up with some riddle or logic problem to get them thinking,” James said.

“We always add on to our lessons and revise what worked and didn’t work,” James added. “We plan the most effective way to deliver the message.”

They group the students by ability, in breakout sessions.

Rather than give tests, “we talk to each kid individually so we can check in on them and build relationships with them,” Ming said.

At the end of each session, all the schools compete against one another in a math team competition. Due to the pandemic, the main competition last year was conducted virtually .

Encouraging curiosity

Ming said he strives to teach students not only how to learn and love to learn, but to show them that curiosity is the most important part of learning.

“We like to keep it very engaging with presentations and worksheets,” Ming said. “It’s always very interactive.”

The tutors form a mentoring relationship with the students.

“We try to show them online resources they can do in their own time,” Ming said.

“We teach them its OK making mistakes and try,” James said.

“These students are all volunteering their time,” said Peter Kinahan, a math teacher at Julia A Stark Elementary School in Stamford, who is their adviser. “I always came to their classes with materials ready to go but I have never had to use them.”

While the boys are involved in other activities and sports events, and conflicts have often come up with their tutoring time, “we’ve always put our math program at a very high priority,” James said. “We’ve been able to plan well.”

Teaching during the pandemic

Throughout the pandemic, the boys have continued their tutoring session virtually, through Zoom and Google Classroom.

“We’ve got a pretty good sense of how to engage students well online,” James said. “We have an iPad and can draw on the screen.”

“We realized with technology that we don’t need to physically drive somewhere to tutor,” he added.

Kinahan said Zoom and video conferencing “has opened up a whole new world of possibilities.”

Learning experience

“I’ve learned a lot,” said James, who would like to pursue a career in academic medicine, a profession “where I would be a surgeon that also mentors and teaches other aspiring physicians in training along with conducting medical research. Specifically, I would like to be a cancer surgeon conducting cancer research.”

“It’s really one of the most rewarding feelings when a student gets an epiphany and can connect the dots and understand something,” James added. “It’s very valuable to understand what teaching is like, and for me to learn myself how to introduce a topic to a kid. Maybe I can apply that to what I learn in the future — it’s a two way street.”

He said that hopefully, after working with the students, they’ll see the topics in a different way, “and find it on their own they look into it further. They can try to figure out what other problem solving skills can be used that they can apply to a new topic.”

Ming said he is now able to get a sense of where the students are and what they’re feeling about a topic without directly asking them.

Additionally, he said he has learned “how to work with kids and take feedback from them,” added Ming, who would like pursue physics and engineering.

“We both always loved math,” James said. “We like to bring our love of math to others.”