By Rosa Durst ’17

When students in his Guadalajara, Mexico, middle school were invited to a free advanced math program, Cuauhtemoc Cruz Herrera ’19  wasn’t interested at first. He was a 12-year-old basketball player with no time for math. Nevertheless, he decided to try it for a week—and ended up swapping basketball games for international Math Olympiad competitions, gaining a lifelong love of the subject.

Now an applied math and economics major, Herrera plans to devote the next few years to awakening that same love of math in other kids—beginning with Integración Matemática, a math program for children in Guadalajara, initially funded by Macalester’s Live It! Fund.

Before Mac, Herrera spent a year teaching advanced math to private school students in Guadalajara. But what he really wanted was to offer a free tutoring program for public school kids.

The Mexican public school system, he says, lacks resources, struggles with spotty teacher attendance, and relies on teaching styles based on rote repetition and mechanics rather than embracing math’s inherent creativity. “You can repeat something a hundred times, but you don’t really understand why you’re doing it,” he says. “There are a thousand ways to do a problem. I can’t teach the thousand ways, so the kids discover it by themselves, using their own knowledge and creativity.”

Herrera spent his first year at Mac applying for funding for his new program, ultimately winning a 2016 Live It! Fund grant—a global citizenship grant for student projects initiated by the college’s Institute for Global Citizenship.

Last May he gave admissions tests to 700 elementary school students from Guadalajara, accepting the top 48 scorers. Then students spent the next two weeks learning combinatorics, number theory, and geometry.

To Herrera’s delight, the program became an enormous success, garnering positive local and national press. The Mexican government even caught wind of it, ultimately deciding that Herrera’s course would be a good investment for them. “They were really happy with the results, and with all the news that came with it,” Herrera says. The government agreed to continue the program during the school year, supplying free classrooms, administration, teachers, and some additional funding.

Next up? Herrera is putting the finishing touches on a 10-year plan that would support talented underserved Mexican students with extra classes in math as well as robotics and English.

Last summer’s pilot program culminated in a student competition, which was won by the student who had earned the lowest score on the admissions test. He came from a particularly difficult background and had entered with a lack of basic math knowledge. As champion, he received a laptop and an interview on national television. For Herrera, “It was really exciting and rewarding to see such change in a kid—in just two weeks.” 

October 10 2016

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