Math camp; it’s cooler than it sounds

Cormac McCarthy doesn’t want kids to be afraid of math, but the concepts and equations of algebra can make that a challenge.

Nevertheless, the third generation Irish teacher and Langley resident has found a way for kids to conquer their math phobias by using physical props and innovative teaching methods geared toward a younger generation. McCarthy’s company, 21st Century Teaching, is holding two five-day education-themed camps this summer at Bayview School. The first, a math camp, is from June 26-30. The second, from July 10-14, will focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

The camps cost $200 per student and is meant for grades 3-7.

“We’re going to work through a lot of algebra in five days,” McCarthy said. “It’s efficient learning. Speedy, yet very efficient learning.”

The math camp will serve as an introductory to algebra and will allow students to literally “grasp” algebraic concepts with chess pieces, boxes and scales. McCarthy says algebra deals with abstract symbols and concepts and can be hard to understand at first. One method to alleviate confusion includes a scale with weighted objects on each end. As objects are taken off one side of the scale, it must be balanced by removing objects from the other side.

Diane Twomey, a math teacher from California, said it’s a hands-on approach to solving linear equations and “makes it real for them.” Twomey has led summer math and science camps in the Bay Area that they were received positively by students, and is here to assist McCarthy. The math camp will still include nitty-gritty bits of algebra such as distributor properties, negative and positive integers, solving polynomial equations, but the terminology will be light and understandable for beginners. For example, the negatives and positives will be represented by blue and white chess pieces, respectively.

Twomey said students typically enter the math camp in “awe” of the equations, but leave with the ability to solve them.

“Once they get that understanding, moving things around, then you can bring in what they are and use the math terminology,” Twomey said.

McCarthy said the STEM camp will be even more hands-on than the math camp and will include the study of subjects such as asteroid impacts, bridge engineering, geology and chemistry in the kitchen. An astronomy lesson will also engage students by exploring measurement in space, proportion, velocity, gravity and connect them with topics in engineering and invention. The “Bridges and Aqueducts” portion of the camp will introduce students to a real-world scenario where they must design a bridge to accomplish certain objectives and criteria.

The final lesson of the camp, technology, will allow students to build their own phone charger with commonplace materials such as an Altoids tin case.

McCarthy, who has taught at both private and public schools on South Whidbey, said the camps will appeal to the creative impulses of the age groups they are designed for, specifically fourth, fifth and sixth graders. He said his goal was to bring something new and exciting to the island that is relevant to what teaching and education should entail in the 21st century. McCarthy says both camps are centered on a “whole brain” approach, which simplifies abstract concepts by using hands-on learning.

“It’s a brand new world and I think as educators we have to ask new questions,” McCarthy said. “I think if we don’t ask those questions, education will become stagnated.”

“Can we not teach reading through robotics? Can we not teach writing through ecology? …The answers to these questions are ‘yes,’ but this method takes work and passion.”

A few high school students will also be assisting McCarthy at the camps. Among them is Ki Jenkins, a former student of McCarthy’s at Waldorf School. Jenkins said McCarthy used a similar approach at Waldorf and it has made a lasting impression on him and has opened his eyes to things he didn’t think about before.

“I think they’re (the students) going to have a really good time and come away with a little more understanding of what’s going on around them,” Jenkins said.

McCarthy said he wants to continue providing his education platform to the community, and that the summer camps are a microcosm of what he hopes to see happen more broadly on South Whidbey. His overarching goal is to become a community education liaison and foster a new “vibrant” network among the educational and community-based organizations already in existence.

“I want to help to bring together the organizations that believe in fostering science, stewardship and community citizenship through education,” McCarthy said.

To register, call McCarthy at (650)-521-1707 or email