Math instructor Michael Gilbert calls the six high school students in his vector calculus class "determined" and says they are well prepared for the challenge. (Photo: Stacy Pigott/UANews)
Math instructor Michael Gilbert calls the six high school students in his vector calculus class "determined" and says they are well prepared for the challenge. (Photo: Stacy Pigott/UANews)

Calculus Kids Make the Grade at the UA

Six high-achieving high school students are learning vector calculus at the UA, thanks to a unique partnership among the UA, the Tucson Unified School District and the Thomas R. Brown Foundations.
Aug. 23, 2017
Sam Merson and Walker Kroubalkian are two of six University High School students studying vector calculus at the UA this year.
Sam Merson and Walker Kroubalkian are two of six University High School students studying vector calculus at the UA this year.

On Monday, mathematics instructor Michael Gilbert walked into a classroom at the University of Arizona and greeted a new group of students. Rather than facing the 35 second-year engineering and physics majors he normally teaches, though, Gilbert said hello to six new students — all of whom are still in high school.

"My first impression was that they were very well prepared," Gilbert said. "Every single one of them had already been introduced to the introductory topics that I was talking about, so I could go a little bit off the books and talk about some more interesting things, and that's not something I usually do. They were really excited about it."

The young scholars — five boys and one girl — attend University High School, a college preparatory school that serves academically focused and intellectually gifted students in the Tucson Unified School District. Having exhausted the math offerings at UHS, which include two Advanced Placement calculus classes, the students were going to have to forgo studying math this year, and no one wanted to see that happen.

"We didn't want to let him not do math," said Kim Merson, whose son, Sam Merson, is one of the students. Kim and her husband, Donald, chose Sonoran Science Academy Broadway for Sam's early schooling so that he would have the opportunity to advance in certain classes, such as math, without skipping a grade.

And advance he did. Sam took advantage of every math opportunity that came his way, from camps to competitions. As he excelled, his teachers and parents continually developed new and innovative ways to advance his learning, such as this joint effort among the UA, TUSD and the Thomas R. Brown Foundations.

This summer, UHS math teacher DeAnna McDonald got the ball rolling when she reached out to the UA's Tina Deemer, director of academic and support services for the Department of Mathematics. Deemer, in turn, contacted Gilbert and the UA Honors College, and a plan began to develop.

"The idea is to give students more access to the classes they wouldn't be able to take otherwise, because there are these very talented students who sometimes get held back by the system a little bit," Gilbert said. "So part of this is trying to make it more accessible to those students."

Gilbert's semester-long vector calculus class — normally taken by first-semester UA sophomores — was reformatted into a yearlong class that would accommodate the UHS schedule. Gilbert is looking forward to teaching the class, which is being held in a study room in the honors residence hall, Árbol de la Vida, on the UA campus.

"These students will experience a glimpse of college life," said Elliott Cheu, interim dean of the Honors College. "In exchange, we have an opportunity to attract high-performing students who will have a unique connection to the UA."

The unique program doesn't come without costs, however, and that's where the Thomas R. Brown Foundations came in. The UHS scholars are receiving reduced tuition from the UA and additional financial support from the foundations.

"These students are talented, motivated and requesting an opportunity to extend their learning," said Sarah Smallhouse, trustee of the foundations. "The Brown Foundations are delighted to see the UA and TUSD working together to make it happen. When we have a chance to help our best and brightest students achieve their potential, and expose them to the UA experience, we believe it is not just a gift to the students, but something meaningful to the UA and the broader community."

As for Sam, Kim says he is excited about the learning opportunity at the UA.

"He wants to major in math and minor in linguistics," Kim said. "He wants to study math and think about math all day. He wants to do pure math — he doesn’t want to do applied math. He could see himself being a teacher. He totally adores so many of his teachers throughout the years and thinks what a cool job they have."

True to form, after attending his first vector calculus class at the UA, Sam had high praise for his new instructor and the advanced class.

"It was wonderful!" Sam said. "It was supposed to be just review-like, but we got into countability. It was more fun than expected!"

Gilbert also was enthusiastic about the possibilities the class presents.

"A class with six students is really different. It's going to be really amazing for me and them," Gilbert said. "They get this sort of one-on-one attention with me, and I get the opportunity to really expand my reach as a teacher and do things that I've always wanted to do. There's room in the course for it to be dynamic, to some extent.

"We have to get through the topics that we have to get through, and there's a schedule for that. But within each topic, I can expand and bring up new ideas that I think would challenge them if it's getting too easy for them," Gilbert said, adding that there is the distinct possibility vector calculus could become too easy for these gifted high schoolers over the year. "I'll just have to be prepared for that. We'll see where it goes."