Interested in mentoring at Mathcamp?

The past several summers I’ve worked at Canada/USA Mathcamp, which is a summer program for advanced highschool students.  It’s a really exciting work environment with lots of great students and an unparalleled opportunity to teach classes on interesting unusual mathematics.  Mathcamp classes have a lot in common with blog posts in a way, as you can see from these posts where I’ve shamelessly mined mathcamp material for posts.  So it occured to me that graduate students who read the blog might be interested in applying to work as mentors!

I’ll put the application after the jump.  Technically it’s past the deadline, but it turns out we need to hire a few more mentors than we’d expected (fewer returning mentors than we’d hoped), so even though we have some very promising applicants we’d love to have a few more good applicants.


Mathcamp is a constantly evolving program; it began in 1993 with a cast of
three (two students and one instructor), and has grown since then into a
dynamic, vigorous summer camp with well over one hundred participants
(including camp students, staff, and distinguished guest speakers).
Despite its large size, the atmosphere at Mathcamp is intimate and
friendly: staff and students mix freely and good humor prevails throughout
(no mean feat in an intense program lasting five weeks!).  We like to
think of Mathcamp as a kind of creative anarchy.  Our goal is to combine
the fun and excitement of a summer camp with a genuine spirit of serious
learning.  Yes, it’s a challenge; and that’s why we’re looking for
creative, intelligent, generous-spirited people to join us in Tacoma,
WA, this summer.

Our chief academic goal is to give the students (and the faculty, for that
matter) ample opportunities for freedom and exploration, a wide choice of
topics and formats of study, and very few mandatory activities — while
providing a range of classes and projects to suit all levels.  Last year,
topics ranged from knot theory, to finite fields, to information theory,
to theoretical computer science, to tropical geometry, to probabilistic
combinatorics.  The philosophy is that each student should be free to
design his or her own schedule; perhaps choosing to attend an advanced
course in a topic she or he understands well, while also taking more
elementary classes in an unfamiliar area.  Our role is to offer the
students plenty of choice, advice, and support as they steer their own way
through the curriculum.

In addition to classroom teaching of the more formal kind, we attempt to
provide a whole spectrum of activities relating to mathematics (and
learning) in the broadest sense.  These include discussions on such topics
as ethnomathematics and the philosophy of mathematics; student talks;
problem-solving sessions; mathematical model-making; puzzle relays; and
many more.  As a mentor, you will be welcome (in fact, expected) to come
up with ideas of your own, and to bring them to fruition.

Outside of mathematics, we also like to give the students a lot of freedom
to use their time as they wish.  Each year we have had an absolutely
wonderful group of campers, and experience shows that they are remarkably
good at taking responsibility and initiative given the chance, and
grateful to us for not trying to micromanage their lives the way summer
camps too often do.  We do provide some organizational and structural
foundations–some sports and trips, a few guidelines for behavior–but we
try as much as we can to relate to the students as friends and younger
peers, for whom we provide counsel and advice, rather than as subordinates
who need to be told what to do.  It is certainly much more enjoyable this
way, for all concerned!


During class hours, mentors carry a substantial share of the teaching
responsibility, designing and delivering courses on a variety of subjects
and at a range of levels.  From group theory to projective geometry, from
calculus to cryptography, from fractals to voting theory — there is an
abundance of mathematics that can be taught (with a little imagination) at
camp level.  If you have a pet topic of your own, or an innovative
approach to one of the old standards (such as linear algebra), then it is
a wonderful opportunity to put your ideas before a class full of students
eager to learn. (And it is sometimes hard to believe just how eager they
are to learn!)

Outside of class, mentors act as counselors or tutors, and are available
to give mathematical (and non-mathematical) advice to the campers at all
hours of the day and night, indoors and out, come sun or come rain.
Perhaps Russell needs a little help understanding group homomorphisms and
would like to see some more concrete examples.  Meanwhile Linda has just
written a beautiful program to draw the graphs of complex analytic
functions, and wants to share her four-dimensional vision with you.  Li,
on the other hand, has run into the axiom of choice for the first time,
and is bubbling over with questions and curiosity — and you’re on hand to
explain just what it has to do with bases of a vector space (or anything
else).  Many mentors offer to supervise independent student research
projects.  Recent projects have included, for example, determining for
which m and n there exists a knight’s tour of an m-by-n chessboard;
understanding the mathematics of the game SET; open problems in
combinatorial game theory; and partitions.

There is another aspect to the mentors’ job that is no less time-consuming
and creative than the first, but much less clearly defined.  Unlike the
senior faculty, who are at the camp primarily in an academic capacity, the
mentors are really in charge of the program as a whole, intimately
involved in every aspect of running it.  The job description writes
itself, day by day, minute by minute: it includes everything from very
mundane tasks like supervising the computer lab and picking up rental
vehicles, to planning out the camp’s program and policies, both academic
and non-academic, to simply hanging out and playing guitar or Scrabble
with the kids.  In general, we are the ones who make Mathcamp into the
kind of community that it is; we are its acknowledged leaders.  With this
power comes an enormous challenge and an enormous responsibility: we
answer to no one but ourselves, but it is up to us to make sure everyone’s
experience at the camp–the faculty’s, the students’, each other’s — is
as amazing as it can possibly be.

Personal time is a precious commodity for Mathcamp mentors; it is
occasionally available, but almost never guaranteed.  On days when we do
not have much teaching, and on nights when nothing much is going on, we
certainly may take time for ourselves–either to relax and regain our
sanity, or to catch up on the research that our advisors expect us to get
done over the summer.  But there are no set hours or limits to our job,
and as much as we can, we try to spend time with the students.  That
doesn’t mean we don’t get to have fun — quite the contrary!  One year,
one of the mentors had a passion for musicals — so she took small groups
of students to the theater every week; another organized weekend hiking
trips; another spent his afternoons playing soccer with the kids.  We
cherish this chance to contribute to the camp on a personal level, to
share with the campers the best of what we have, in math as well as in
life.  This is what we mean when we say that, in advertising for new
mentors, the camp is looking for partners and leaders, not employees.  In
the words of one mentor, “You don’t work for Mathcamp, you =are=
Mathcamp.”  You have been warned: it is hard work.  You won’t survive in
this job without a lot of enthusiasm, devotion, and stamina.  But we must
warn you also: the results may be so rewarding, that (like many of us) you
will get addicted and never want to leave!


Just as involved with the running of camp are the junior counselors (JCs):
Mathcampers from previous years who have entered college by now.  They
bridge the age gap between the high-school students and the graduate
students, and carry out the lion’s share of the non-academic tasks. Each
year the JCs have done an incredible job: the camp couldn’t run without
them.  We’re sure we’ll be just as lucky this year — we’ve already
appointed several of the JCs, and they are a terrific bunch of
individuals.  You’ll certainly enjoy working with them.


$3200 plus transportation, room and board for the duration of camp. It is
not a very high salary, considering the amount of work and responsibility,
but Mathcamp’s resources are limited: it has no government funding, and we
strive to keep tuition low.  We are asking all the faculty–professors,
mentors, and junior counselors alike–to think of this as a labor of love.
(And of the salary, however much it is, as a nice bonus.)


You can find Mathcamp on the web, at

Or write to any of us (we are all mentors or have been mentors in the
past, and can tell you more about what it’s like):

Mira Bernstein (mira mathcamp org)
Marisa Debowsky (marisa mathcamp org)
Julian Gilbey (jdg polya uklinux net)
Yvonne Lai (yxl umich edu)
David Roe (roed math harvard edu)
David Savitt (savitt math arizona edu)
Michael Shulman (shulman math uchicago edu)
Noah Snyder (nsnyder math berkeley edu)
Dan Zaharopol (danz alum mit edu)


Write us a page or two about yourself, why you want to join Mathcamp and
how you think you could contribute.  Describe your qualifications,
experience (construe that broadly), ideas, etc.

Describe, in a half-page to a page, a class or independent student project
that you would like to run at Mathcamp.  Feel free to design your dream
class or ideal project.  Make sure to include some details, like difficulty,
pacing, problems you might assign, etc.  Keep in mind that these are
bright high school students who can accomplish a lot — but have limited
time, and varying mathematical backgrounds.  Some of them may meet
modular arithmetic for the very first time at camp (but will be quick to pick
it up and run with it); a few will have taken classes at college already, and
will happily follow a development of Stokes’ Theorem on manifolds; most
fall somewhere in between.  What we are most looking for is a coherent,
interesting curriculum that demonstrates your creativity as a teacher.

In addition to your detailed class proposal, please give several brief (a
sentence or two is fine) descriptions for 2-3 other classes or projects
that you might like to run at Mathcamp.  Please include enough details
for us to understand the content of the course and the main ideas that
students should take away; we would like to see your breadth as a
teacher and your range as a mathematician.

We’d also like to hear any new ideas you have for interesting and fun
activities, whether they are math-related or not.

We want to get an overall feeling for who you are, and how you would fit
into our community, but your application needn’t be longer than a few
pages. Include your name, year, school, mathematical and teaching
interests, and the best way for us to contact you.  Please send your
application in the body of your e-mail as plain text (and not as a
MS-Word, PDF, PostScript, or dvi file).  Send it to Noah Snyder
(nsnyder math berkeley edu) by Tuesday, March 10, 2009.


We also ask for one letter of recommendation on your behalf.  Our first
preference is for a letter which speaks to your teaching experience and
expertise.  However, this is by no means a requirement: some of our best
mentors have had little formal teaching experience before their first
summer at Mathcamp.  In any case, please show our description of the
mentor position to your recommender, and ask your recommender to
comment on your suitability for such a job.

Again we ask that the recommendation letter be sent to us via email; that
it be in the body of the e-mail (not MS-Word, PDF, PostScript, or dvi);
and again it is preferable that we receive the letter on or before Tuesday,
March 10, 2009.  If it is not possible for your recommender to send the
letter via email, please fax it to Mathcamp at (617) 812-6339, or send it
by postal mail to 129 Hancock St., Cambridge, MA 02139.

Also, if you know someone who has been involved in Mathcamp in the past,
and you would like us to keep them in mind as a reference, please include
their name and email address.

When we receive your application, we will send you an acknowledgment; if
you have not heard from us, please feel free to write to us to confirm the
receipt of your application.

We hope to make our final decisions by late March or early April.

Note: we prefer people to arrive by July 1 and leave August 12.  However,
if you can only make it for (a significant) part of that time, get in
touch with us anyway.

Thanks very much for your interest in Mathcamp!

Noah (for the rest of the hiring committee)

11 thoughts on “Interested in mentoring at Mathcamp?

  1. Hi Noah. As long as this topic has come up, we’re on the other side of it! Our son Nicholas is interested in MathCamp and he probably will apply, but we can’t really take it for granted that he will be admitted. Is there some other program to fill the gap between being ready for MathCamp, and not being interested in a quality summer math camp at all? I talked some to Yvonne Lai and Mark Krusemeyer about this, but they knew a lot more about why MathCamp is a great program — which was a useful point of which we are now entirely convinced — than about good alternatives.

    I can see that there are several other storied summer math camps on the AMS list: Ohio State, Promys, Hampshire. But as far as I know they are all comparably selective. It would be really good to have a rough idea of how selective any of these programs are, relative to each other.

  2. You’ve come to the right place, comparisons between different summer math programs is something I can talk about forever.

    Within those top programs there is quite a bit of variation in terms of selectivity. When I was a teenager I went to the Ross program at Ohio State and I worked there in college. At Ross, although there is a selective admissions process with a quiz, we were able to accept all the students we wanted to take. At Mathcamp, however, this has become increasingly difficult as the number of applications grows while our number of spots stays the same. We are no longer able to accept everyone who is qualified. In particular, my impression (which may be a little out of date) is that Mathcamp and Promys are harder to get into than Hampshire and Ross. Mathcamp is probably the most selective (I think we’re taking around a quarter of applicants these days).

    Promys and Ross are basically the same model (they’re both run by alums of the Ross program), which is based around problem sets. They have relatively few classes and instead most of the time is spent working on problems. In many ways Ross and Promys feel more like graduate school, while Mathcamp feels more like undergrad (many classes going on at once). I don’t know Hampshire as well as the other programs but I’ve heard great things from Emily Peters.

    Although there are many important differences between these programs, I think it’s easy to overstate how important the differences are. Most people love the program that they went to because its the program that they went to. I think that the Ross model is an amazing way to learn mathematics for those who can handle it. For someone who I knew was going to end up a mathematician I’d say go to Ross or Promys. However, I think that Mathcamp (and, my impression is Hampshire as well) is enjoyable and valuable to a wider range of students than the Ross model. There were always some unhappy students at Ross, and Mathcamp doesn’t have the same problem. Mathcamp has a lot more non-math stuff going on than Ross did, while still having the opportunity to do as much math as you want.

    Beyond those four programs my knowledge is a lot more sketchy.

  3. I just looked up Mathcamp’s website, and followed that to the article by Sara Sheehan, and I’m quite impressed with this program, and in particular the stress on collaboration and fun. A long time ago, the NSF sponsored science and mathematics programs for high school students at various universities across the country. I recall having to do problem sets for admittance to these not that much different than the problem set I found at the Mathcamp website. The first I attended, at Notre Dame in 1967, was more like graduate school, with lectures problem sets, no collaboration at all, and no mentors of any kind. We studied “Linear Algebra” by Hoffman and Kunze, which while introducing us to the rigors of proof, was horribly dry for this age group, and not a good choice at all. (I still have the book!) The second one that I attended, at Berkeley in 1968, was much better in terms of making mathematics interesting and enjoyable, although collaboration was still not emphasized. Berkeley made use of of several recently graduated undergraduates for most instruction, and the kids were able to relate well to them. We went on a field trip, and one of the instructors brought some of us to an art house movie one night. That experience cemented my interest in mathematics.

  4. Thanks, Noah, that’s quite helpful! You may well be right in your assessment of these four programs, although when I was on the phone with David Kelly, the Hampshire guy, he too said that they turn away some applicants that they would like to teach. It would also be interesting to understand what programs come after these four. Surely you eventually get to programs that have good instruction but would like to have more students. (But it’s very possible that these four programs include enough choices for Nicholas.)

    Meanwhile our daughter will go to MathPath (barring some unforeseen dramatic event). If you really like to compare these programs ad infinitum, would you know anything about MathPath that we don’t know?

    When I was in grade school, I went to a short-lived program of this type at the University of Chicago. The courses were very interesting, but unfortunately the counseling fell apart. The counselors were reasonable people, but somehow their efforts lacked coordination or there weren’t enough of them or something. Some of the students had inverted sleep schedules and some of them stirred up trouble after hours. Not an enormous amount of trouble, but more than epsilon. I have no reason to think that I was the worst apple in the barrel, but my own conduct was not particularly noble. (In my defense, I only turned 14 when I was there.)

    In hindsight, the experience gives me respect for competent bureaucrats. Running one of these programs, or indeed any kind of program, is not as simple as just having the correct educational philosophy.

  5. Other programs past those four… There’s SUMaC, one of my grad school friends taught there and didn’t seem all that impressed, but my advisor’s son went there last year and apparently enjoyed it. There’s a new contest math program called AwesomeMath. All I know about them is that they’ve hired all our old problem solving instructors and have bought the google adword “mathcamp” and so are all over my gmail. (Which is to say that personally they annoy me a great deal, but probably it’s a good program.) There’s the “honors summer mathcamp” in Texas, which is founded by a Ross alum. For younger kids there’s CTY and MathPath. I don’t know so much directly about any of those (I went to CTY, but I think it’s changed a bit as a result of lawsuits [ed.: I can’t seem to confirm this rumor on google, what I meant was they’ve gotten even stricter and rule-based then they were before and I’d heard that was a result of legal issues, but that may have been a rumor]).

    The bureaucracy aspect of these programs is rather difficult. At Ross we basically only hired counselors from among alums of the program. This meant that there was a certain annoying variance in how many experienced counselors we had (and how many total counselors we had for that matter). So every six years or so there was a year where we were in over our heads. Especially because you have to hire people who have the mathematical chops, and that doesn’t so much corrolate with being able to run things.

    A nice thing about Mathcamp is that hiring graduate students in addition to undergrads gets rid of a lot of this variability. The culture of the Mathcamp “bureaucracy” has really impressed me. The program’s director lives in the dorms and so is very much in touch with the details of the program, there’s a great willingness to think outside the box (for example, the mathcamp week runs tuesday to saturday so that we can run big field trips on monday), and there’s a remarkable institutional ability to remember and learn from the past.

  6. There’s SUMaC, one of my grad school friends taught there and didn’t seem all that impressed, but my advisor’s son went there last year and apparently enjoyed it.

    One salient feature of SUMaC is that it is more expensive than some of the others. The advanced topics at SUMaC also make the program seem quite advanced in general.

    Another program that may be more in this middle tier than SUMaC (at least in its intentions) is Rutgers YSP. Again, I don’t know how it’s run.

    Especially because you have to hire people who have the mathematical chops, and that doesn’t so much correlate with being able to run things.

    In any case, it’s a double optimization problem.

  7. One way Mathcamp gets around this “double optimization” problem is that the undergraduate staff (JCs) are not hired on the basis of mathematics or teaching. (Though they are all alums, so they at least have a strong interest in mathematics.)

  8. “In hindsight, the experience gives me respect for competent bureaucrats. Running one of these programs, or indeed any kind of program, is not as simple as just having the correct educational philosophy.”

    At the math program in Berkeley in 1968 we (us kids) were dropped right into the middle of the social and political turmoil of the time, several kids (not myself) were arrested in the midst of rioting, and I’m sure the administrators were having fits. Good mathematics and interesting times: it was one of the best experiences of my life. :-)

  9. Hi,
    I am interested in knowing if tmentoring at Mathcamps is also open to people who are not US/Canada citizens and possibly non native english speakers?


  10. Sure, we can hire non-citizens (or at least we’ve mostly been able to work out visa issues in the past). Teaching is in English, so fluency is relevant, but being a native speaker is not at all necessary. We’ve had excellent mentors in the past who weren’t native English speakers.

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