At Baruch High School, Math Takes the Prize

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For some students at Baruch College Campus High School, Angry Birds has been more than an enormous time suck and mental distraction. With the encouragement of their teachers, they have been examining the physics equations that underlie the popular digital game, focusing on their interest in the flying birds to improve their math skills.

That is just one way the teachers at the high school, on East 25th Street, takes a creative approach to math -- and a reason why the school was selected as one of 18 national finalists of the annual Intel Schools of Distinction competition.

Baruch was one of three schools, but the only one in New York City, selected for its innovative high school math curriculum. The school won $5,000, a trip for four to Washington in September and a chance at another $20,000 prize, Intel announced Wednesday.

The principal, Alicia Perez-Katz, credited the school's teachers with making math approachable and fun.

“I was not a lover of math, but I wish I had math teachers who taught like this,” she said.

This was the first time the school applied for the prestigious prize, she said. The application, which took 17 hours for her, the assistant principal and the math department to complete, focused on the Baruch Conference for Students of Mathematics, an annual event modeled on professional conferences usually reserved for teachers.

Students present projects and conduct workshops on math concepts that interest them. Gamers have tried to use math to predict the arc of the flying birds and tumbling rocks. Other students have explored photography and math. Sports lovers focus on baseball averages and other statistics.

“It’s a way to get students to take ownership of their learning, and take learning outside the classroom,” Ms. Perez-Katz said.

Besides the conference, the math program requires every student to take calculus by senior year. It is an ambitious goal, Ms. Perez-Katz said, because many ninth graders who pass the Regents tests still don’t truly grasp math fundamentals.

“They can plug in numbers to the problems,” Ms. Perez-Katz said, “but they don't understand why.”

So the school requires students to present every math problem they solve in five ways: on a graph, in an equation, in a table, with a drawing and a written explanation.

The program also requires that all students, in their junior year, create a 10-year budget for themselves, incorporating compound interest. And top students are able to take classes at Baruch College across the street.

“We don't use one text book for a course,” Ms. Perez-Katz said. “Teachers look at a wide range of texts and make their own and find the best way to present ideas.”

Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott issued a statement on Wednesday congratulating the school.

“Given its focus on everyday problem-solving and success in preparing students for college, it’s no wonder Principal Perez-Katz’s school is one of the most popular high schools in New York City,” he said.

Ms. Perez-Katz said the win was a surprise because the school had been notified that it had an incomplete application. But Intel later informed them that they were a finalist after it realized it was working off an abandoned submission, rather than the one the school went on to complete.