Summer Math 1-2-1

Here are some numbers for you: 130 incoming first-year Pomona students—or 29% of the Class of 2024—opted to participate in 1-2-1 Math, an online summer program.

While those numbers may be hard for you to retain a few moments from now, the program is one to remember for the students who now have a taste of what’s to come in their Pomona careers after being introduced to collaborative learning, some of the differences between high school and college, and their critical role to play in their own education.

The 1-2-1 program, the brainchild of Pomona College Math Professors Shahriar Shahriari and Ghassan Sarkis, is a collaborative intellectual community customized to incoming students’ backgrounds and interests under the guidance of nine current Pomona students who are paid for their work. The idea, which was conceived several years ago, proved to be prescient for these pandemic times with its online format. The program aims to build community, confidence, develop problem-solving skills, and prepare first-year students for college by working in small groups on intensive math problems. All first-years were invited to apply and there are no grades.

“In all of these sessions, students get to know each other and get to discuss their college plans all in the context of an academic program,” says Shahriari.

Each week the students worked on three assignments—each consisting of five math problems from a variety of different topics—in a small group with their peers led by a current Pomona student. In addition to the small group meetings, every week the program offers 26 other 90-minute open sessions designed to cater to different schedules and different time zones.

“It was—and is—up to them to decide how deeply to engage with the material. Moreover, they are not just there to absorb information,” says Shahriari. Instead the goal is to welcome and empower everyone.

“We do so by bringing important elements of college life to a supportive low-stakes environment before the rush of the first semester begins.

“The fact that nearly one in three incoming Pomona students chose to spend one summer month working on intensive math problems with their peers solely for intellectual community and growth is truly amazing,” says Shahriari.

But this program isn’t geared toward math majors. The vast majority of 1-2-1 scholars want to major in a field other than mathematics, says Shahriari. Their interests span the humanities, arts, social sciences and the lab sciences. The field of mathematics emphasizes problem solving, careful reasoning, clear communication of ideas and collaborative work, he says. Which may very well be the perfect way to prepare for a liberal arts education at Pomona. Shahriari calls it a ‘mini-rehearsal’ for the academic year.   

“For some students, the climate and the environment of a selective liberal arts college is quite unfamiliar, and it takes some time before the students start to use the available college resources—faculty office hours, opportunities to learn from their peers, etc.—effectively. Our hope is that a summer program would be a small step to help even the playing field,” says Shahriari.

The name 1-2-1 is a nod to a kind of mathematical function for which unique inputs produce unique outputs, Shahriari explains.

“It also describes an important motivating principle for the program—that the best intellectual ventures are collaborative, and that diverse academic communities are built with human-to-human connections.” 

So, what was the program like for the students? Here are the first-years’ and teaching assistants’ takeaways:

Zoë Batterman ’24

A first-year student from China, Louisiana and France, on why she signed up for the program:

“My first thought wasn’t about math. It was, ‘Oh, something about meeting new people? Yep! Sign me up.’ Even though meeting new people exhausted me, this was a chance to meet incoming students, current students and professors—all at the same time. For some reason this sounded like a great plan to my introverted self. And, I would sample different teaching styles, so why not?”

Vera Berger ’23

A math major from Albuquerque, New Mexico, on why she decided to become a teaching assistant (TA):

“Professor Shahriari described this position as a blend between math mentor and sponsor — having had positive experiences with both, being a TA seemed like the perfect way to spend my summer. I was excited by the prospect of learning to communicate concepts I had recently learned and connecting with incoming students.”

Tonya Chivandire ’24

An incoming student from Harare, Zimbabwe, on how the program reinforced or strengthened her skills in preparation for her Pomona education: 

“Although I was familiar with most of the topics in the program, the questions in the problem sets were structured in a way that revealed the quirky yet fundamental aspects of mathematics that were either neglected or ‘simplified’ in high school. The questions implored me to think deeper about patterns and formulas and practicing them has equipped me with a more insightful approach to mathematics. In our small group discussions, we were able to tackle the most difficult of problems and merge our different thought processes into a beautiful solution.”

Aditya Bhalla ’23

A mathematics and politics major from Glenview, Illinois, on the challenges of being a teaching assistant:

“Working with first-years is challenging because I haven't mastered the material myself; some of the work is just as new to me as it is to them. However, this is also one of the most rewarding aspects of the program. I'm learning new concepts with my peers, and we struggle through problems together. There isn't a fear of being wrong, nor is there pressure to be correct. We can freely engage with new material without a lot of the reservations that may come with a more typical classroom environment.” 

Alison Tu ’24

A first-year student from San Gabriel, California, on the best thing about the 1-2-1 program:

“Hands down the people were the best thing about the 1-2-1 program. Being with students who didn't join this program for grades or credit but rather for the sheer desire to learn meant that our interactions were even more fun, collaborative and meaningful.”

Sammy Shrestha ’23

A teaching assistant from Oakland, California, on what he loves about math:

“I really like problem solving, and the feeling when you finally crack a problem is amazing.”

Rahul Jain ’24

A first-year student from Bellevue, Washington, on what he learned about collaboration:

“We were often encouraged to share our own answers to our peers’ questions before our mentors stepped in and answered them for us. I became really comfortable with sharing my answer—despite knowing that it’s wrong—and allowing others to help me correct my mistakes since I know I won’t make the same mistake the next time.”

Eliza Grisanti ’23

A teaching assistant from New York City on what she’s gained from her role:

“We have the ability to try new things as they come up and see what works, so that’s been rewarding. I’ve also loved going over material I had trouble with last year, and both seeing incoming students become more comfortable with it and feeling stronger about it myself.”

Mikayla Kidd ’24

A first-year student from Los Angeles on the program’s benefits:

“1-2-1 really reminded me of the skills, work ethic and diligence it takes to learn—not just complete an assignment. There are no grades, but the motivation to do well and learn came from a collaborative goal to arm ourselves with transferable skills for the fall semester.”

Annika Hoseth ’23

A music and math major and teaching assistant from Tacoma, Washington, offers advice for incoming students:

“I always loved a challenge, but college-level math was definitely intimidating for me at first. My advice would be to take a deep breath, focus on one thing at a time, and never be embarrassed to ask for help from peers, mentors or professors.”