More Than the Sum of its Parts

Natural Sciences8 MIN READ

A unique summer camp aimed at Waterville children unexpectedly benefits Colby students

Christian Okyere ’26 high-fives a camper before children go on stage for their final performance during Sum Camp, a three-week camp that uses games and the arts to strengthen children's math skills. Colby students are involved as counselors and gain confidence and skills of their own. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti)
By Laura Meader
August 30, 2023

A one-of-a-kind summer camp brought Colby students and Waterville children together in a winning equation.

math + the arts + movement + games = Sum Camp

Sum Camp is designed to multiply students’ confidence and skills in math. Geared for rising fourth and fifth graders who struggle in math, the innovative, three-week day camp develops a passion for math in children. Instead of laboring over worksheets full of equations, campers discover math embedded in music, art, and theater. They also learn that math can be a lot of fun, especially with Colby student counselors in the mix.

“Sum Camp exists to promote a creative approach to math and to expand people’s ideas of how math can be learned and expressed,” said Professor of Mathematics Scott Taylor, who founded Sum Camp and partnered with Waterville Public Schools to bring it to life.

Now in its third year, Sum Camp has transformed children by giving them agency and confidence at a crucial time, on the cusp of adolescence and before they enter junior high.

Alfie Nguyen ’26 works with a camper on an art activity during Sum Camp. He found the students he worked with to be curious, and together they investigated different ways to arrive at the same answer. (Photo by Alice Willette)

Colby student counselors benefit, too. Alfie Nguyen ’26, a computer science and mathematics double major, felt a connection to campers who overcame their fear of math just as he did his first year at college. Xinyi Zhang ’25 saw that her seemingly disparate interests in education, the performing arts, and mathematics actually fit together and contribute to society.

“I don’t know of any other camp like Sum Camp,” said Taylor, who has spoken and written about the camp’s strategy and success. He sees the camp as one way to “really contribute to a vibrant, local educational community.”

Sum Camp’s beginnings

Sum Camp sprung from Taylor’s desire to develop some type of math camp and an idea from a school volunteer, Sara Taddeo. She believed that trauma affects children’s ability to learn math by interfering with logical thinking and executive functioning. She was also curious about the arts’ ability to help people of all ages process trauma.

Could they create a camp that drew on the arts to circumvent the effects of trauma and help kids learn math?

“Helping kids learn to embody number sense through lots of different channels, physical, creative, and artistic—seemed like a really powerful idea.”

Professor of Mathematics Scott Taylor, founder of Sum Camp

This vision aligned with three concepts Taylor had been simultaneously reading about: the need to incorporate kinetic and visual components as means to synthesize mathematical concepts; the role that having a “number sense”—fluency in addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division—plays in progressing in math; and the importance of a “growth mindset,” or the ability to handle and learn from mistakes.

“Bringing these three pieces together—helping kids learn to embody number sense through lots of different channels, physical, creative, and artistic—seemed like a really powerful idea,” said Taylor.

He recruited enthusiastic teachers from Waterville Public Schools and ran the first Sum Camp in 2019 with a one-year grant from the Davis Family Foundation. After the pandemic lockdown, Sum Camp resumed in 2022 with support from the Waterville Public Schools and a three-year funding commitment from Colby’s Office of the President, Oak Institute for Human Rights, and Center for the Arts and Humanities and from the National Science Foundation.

This funding allows children to attend Sum Camp free of charge and for the instructors to be paid for their work.

Taylor is actively seeking funding to continue Sum Camp after 2024. He sees the potential to expand the camp to include professional development opportunities for area teachers and internships for mathematics graduate students from other institutions.

Sum Camp campers dressed as gnomes for their performance of Gnome Math for Me, a play written expressly for them by Sum Camp Theater Teacher Paul Villavencio. Theater is part of the camp’s multi-pronged approach to using the arts to help children grow as individuals and, in this case, work together toward a common goal. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti)

Sum Camp is a formula he knows is changing children’s lives.

“Art, music, and theater help balance the brain,” said Sum Camp Theater Teacher Paul Villavencio, who directed campers in a play he wrote expressly for them. “The arts open up the mind to solve problems in a more creative way—sometimes in ways we wouldn’t think of within our left brain-only world.”

A day at Sum Camp

Held this year at Waterville High School, a typical day at Sum Camp found campers spending mornings engaged in the arts and afternoons playing math games.

In music and movement class, they warmed up their voices with the solfege scale—do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do—interlocking hands in front of their chests and shifting them up or down with each change in pitch. Skip-counting (2, 4, 6, 8 …) became even more fun to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Drumming on five-gallon buckets was a dynamic way to practice coordination and counting beats per minute.

The goal was to use movement-based activities to embody the math that is inherent in music, said Christine Little, the camp’s music teacher. Little introduced music concepts such as tempo, pitch, and amplitude and used them as springboards for exploring math skills such as counting, fractions, and measuring.

At Sum Camp, fourth and fifth graders from Waterville Public Schools consolidated their math knowledge through creative games, music, arts, and theater. (Photo by Alice Willette) 

Inside the art room, campers’ projects reflected lessons in ratios, symmetry, multiplication, and geometry. There were three-dimensional cubes, pyramids, and triangular prisms crafted from straws; vibrant paintings in the style of abstract artist Alma Thomas; and tabletops filled with mosaics of cats, trees, and mandalas.

Sum Camp Art Teacher Holly Hubbard said that when children engage in art-making activities, their stress is reduced. She can see campers relax and focus, their minds absorbed in the creative process.

One 11-year-old camper said her favorite activity was making string art using multiplication facts. Wrapping colored strings around nails labeled one through 10 around the perimeter of a board “was really, really fun,” she said. Twice around the “4” for two times two, for example. “You can look at the colors and remember your multiplication facts by the colors.”

Every step of the way, Colby student interns were there to help. “If I was struggling, they would come over and talk to me,” said the same 11-year-old. “They tried to help us break problems down and help us in ways that we never knew.”

A better way to learn math

Working with elementary students was a new experience for Nguyen, who has tutored middle schoolers in his native Vietnam. As a Sum Camp counselor, he witnessed a completely different approach to math education. “Vietnam is a very math-oriented country,” he said, “but not many kids enjoy math for the sake of it. We didn’t have any creativity, and a lot of it was worksheets and remembering formulas.”

Counselor Aum Desai ’26 learned math in India the classic way, with a teacher at a chalkboard. “This is better,” he said of Sum Camp’s approach. “It’s kind of beautiful how much they learn about math through art and games,” he said, noting that the internship, combined with being a teaching assistant at Colby, is making him consider becoming a teacher.

Aum Desai ’26 guides a camper before the final performance of the play Gnome Math for Me. Desai’s experience as a camp counselor has made him consider becoming an educator in the future. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti)

Nguyen, Desai, and Christian Okyere ’26 spent the month prior to the camp preparing materials and files. In July, they fully immersed themselves with the campers.

One of their primary responsibilities was creating new math games, following the lead of Thom Klepach, Sum Camp math teacher and visiting assistant professor of biology at Colby.  

One game they invented was a mathematical adaptation of Quidditch, a well-known playground game inspired by the Harry Potter books. With softball-sized multi-sided dice flying, campers have to perform simple calculations; the result contributes to their tally of camp points that they can spend at an auction later in the month. Other games involve giant number lines and numbered jerseys. They’re the kind of rapid-fire, quick-thinking games that campers love because of the physicality involved.

Games allowed the campers to realize that math is a skill that is valuable to them, said Klepach. “They are reinforcing skills without realizing it and having fun at the same time.”

The pride of mentorship

It’s no surprise that following hours spent playing games, art-making, and at recess, the student counselors established a strong rapport with the campers. Mentors and mentees developed mutual affection and respect.

“The children in the camp look up to the Colby students. They just adore them. So, there’s a really powerful education opportunity there for the counselors,” said Taylor.

“Getting to know a group of kids and seeing them grow in three weeks is very motivating for me,” said Nguyen, reflecting on his experience. “It’s really rewarding to see how much of an impact Sum Camp has on them. In 20 years, they’ll look back and they’ll remember Alfie, Aum, and Christian.

“I’m just happy that I was a part of that,” he said, “It’s a really good feeling when you get to help a kid.”