SMaRT Camp is a two-week summer program at Texas A&M University intended to broaden and encourage advanced high school students' interest in mathematics.


There's no swimming, hiking or campfire songs at this summer camp. Instead, almost every day of the two-week period is spent inside a classroom, immersed in studying complex mathematical topics from number theory to algebraic concepts, followed by hours of solving grueling practice problems.

It may not be everyone's idea of summer vacation, but as far as the roughly two dozen teenagers who each year attend the Summer Mathematics Research Training (SMaRT) Camp at Texas A&M University are concerned, there's no better opportunity to connect with likeminded peers over a subject they love.

Founded by Texas A&M Distinguished Professor of Mathematics Peter Kuchment in 2009, SMaRT Camp invites high school students from across the country to live on campus and study higher-level mathematics side by side with some of the university's leading mathematicians. And unlike most other summer camps, it's free, thanks to current sponsors that include the Texas A&M Department of Mathematics, the Curtis D. Roberts Endowment and the Texas A&M Department of Teaching, Learning and Culture.

"They are in a research-based learning environment and start from low common points to very advanced things," Kuchment said. "If they like mathematics, computer science and general STEM disciplines, they will be excited for what SMaRT Camp can offer. And it's going to help them a lot."

For most high school students, mathematics is just another academic subject on the path to graduation, but for SMaRT Camp attendees, it becomes their life. That's why Kuchment, along with fellow Texas A&M mathematician and SMaRT Camp co-director Oksana Shatalov, thoroughly review each application to identify only the most passionate young mathematicians for eventual admittance.

"We get lots of applications from really good students, but we always try to see the real person," Kuchment said. "We want to know who truly cares about this type of learning and who is serious about doing 24/7 hard work."

A typical day of SMaRT Camp begins with a lecture on the day's subject by Shatalov, after which the camp breaks into small groups to work on practice problems followed by a discussion led by the camp counselors. Meanwhile, Kuchment leads a separate lecture down the hall for returning SMaRT Camp students on more complex topics. Throughout the two weeks, various faculty stop by to guest lecture on a variety of math-related topics.

Saturday is reserved for a special event known as "Saturday Celebration," a comprehensive exam designed to test students on their skills from the previous week's lessons. A hallmark of SMaRT Camp, however, is that no grades are ever given. Instead, the exam and any homework assignments are marked only with comments intended to help guide students toward the correct answer.

For Kuchment and Shatalov, the commitment to SMaRT campers extends well beyond two weeks each summer. Together, they go to great lengths, not only to track the students' academic development throughout the remainder of their high school tenures and into college, but also to simply keep in touch. It's not uncommon for Kuchment and Shatalov to get to know their campers on a personal level, with some even returning to help out as counselors.

"It's nice to know when they leave here that our efforts have been worth something, and we love to see them come back as counselors because they always do a great job," Shatalov said. "Being here in camp, we create a special type of relationship. They know they can always reach out to us for questions or advice about their academic decisions, and we'll be here for them."

Max Hlavacek, a first-year mathematics graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, and Natasha Ter-Saakov, a freshman mathematics major at MIT, are both former SMaRT Camp attendees who served as counselors for this year's cohort.

Hlavacek first attended SMaRT Camp after completing her freshman year of high school in 2010 and at the time was developing a curiosity in mathematics. The experience, she said, gave her the self-assurance to pursue her interests and helped set her academic goals in motion.

"I felt like everyone who really loved math was way smarter than me, and I thought that by going to SMaRT Camp, I could see if I really liked it or not," Hlavacek said. "It turned out I really did like it. It gave me a lot of confidence, because I had the freedom to work on problems my own way. I wanted to help facilitate that for other people, because it really shaped my career."

In Ter-Saakov's case, it was about helping change students' perception of a subject that has traditionally held the stigma of being boring or even scary. She attended her first camp in 2013.

"I like working with students and motivating them; I enjoy their excitement about the topics," Ter-Saakov said. "I hope that the students at SMaRT Camp have already learned this, but I want them to understand that mathematics can be very different from what's taught in school and can be very fun."

Kuchment estimates that he and Shatalov have witnessed more than 200 children pass through the program over the years, the majority of whom go on to study and pursue careers in mathematics. A longtime proponent of educational outreach, Kuchment says it's up to universities to become involved with children and help better prepare them for the academic expectations of higher education.

"It is such a joy to work with these children," Kuchment said. "It's one of the biggest pleasures I get from teaching. As a university, we need to do as much as we can, not only for our students, but also for K-12 students. I feel obligated to do this."

For more information on SMaRT Camp, visit http://www.math.tamu.edu/outreach/SMaRT/.

See additional photographs from the 2018 session of SMaRT Camp.


Contact: Chris Jarvis, (979) 845-7246 or cjarvis@science.tamu.edu or Dr. Peter Kuchment, (979) 862-3257 or kuchment@math.tamu.edu

Jarvis Chris

  • 2018 SMaRT Camp participants, counselors and affiliated faculty.

  • Dr. Peter Kuchment, SMaRT Camp director and founder, delivering one of his daily lectures to returning campers.

  • 2018 SMaRT Camp counselors Max Hlavacek (left) and Natasha Ter-Saakov (right) pose in their official camp t-shirts from the respective years -- 2010 and 2013 -- they originally participated as campers.

  • SMaRT Campers are encouraged to work any way they like to complete their daily assignments -- alone, in pairs or in groups, such as the one below led by Max Hlavacek (far right).

© Texas A&M University. To request use of any of our photographs for educational use or to view additional options from our archive, please contact the College of Science Communications Office.

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