At the University of Washington, the summertime Mathematics Academy is trying to broaden the appeal of engineering. The College of Engineering hopes to close the gap between what students learn in high school and where they need to be to succeed in college math. All kinds of students fall into the gap, but it is...

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The equations on dry-erase boards didn’t interest me, but the people in the room did.

They were figuring out something about the slope of a tangent, but the real question is, can passion multiplied by work produce an exponential increase in realized talent?

Dave Prince is the lead instructor for the summertime Mathematics Academy at the University of Washington. It’s a project of the College of Engineering.

Helping is personal for him. “My family was very poor,” he told me. “I know what it’s like to be hungry.” He said engineering is a way up for many of his students, who often are the first in their families to go to college. He wants them to succeed and mentor others.

His math-teaching philosophy is simple: “What works is work.” If students are willing to work hard, he’s willing to be there with them.

He’s tall and lean with gray hair and a bit of a tan. He was born in Chicago and grew up in Hawaii, where his parents settled after World War II because it was easier there for a family with a black father and a white mother.

The students in the academy are a very mixed group. A lot of folks in engineering are trying to broaden the profession’s appeal.

Math Academy is in its second year. Prince designed the program, but the idea came from Thomas Calhoun, assistant dean for student academic services in the college of engineering. His field was molecular biology before he went into administration.

Calhoun wants to close the gap between what students learn in high school and where they need to be to succeed in college math.

Too many good students fall into that gap. It happens for all kinds of students but is more marked with students from some minority groups or from low-income families.

To get in, students have to have been doing well in school and particularly in math; the average grade-point average was 3.5 last year.

The program is for students heading into their senior year because that gives them more time to adjust to college expectations.

Twenty-three of the 27 students who participated last year applied to the UW. Fourteen were accepted, and others were accepted elsewhere. Ten enrolled at the UW for this fall.

This year, there are 26 students from around the state.

In two rooms, in clusters of three or four, students were working on a problem, some sounding as excited as they might be discussing their approach to a video game.

Won Oh and Simon Medrano attend Clover Park High School in Lakewood, Pierce County. Their calculus teacher recommended the program.

“The main purpose is to learn how to problem-solve,” Medrano said, adding that it’s a skill “we will use all of our lives.”

They both like math and Oh said, “They don’t grade. They want you to learn the process … to think like a mathematician.”

Alana Akpojovwo, of Chief Sealth High School in Seattle, found the program online. She’d attended a conference of the National Society of Black Engineers, “which opened the door for me.” She wants to study bioengineering, then go to medical school.

Shelby Bartlett, of Hudson’s Bay High School in Vancouver, Wash., said her Gear Up coordinator told her about the program.

“I like math, and I like to design things.” She thinks she’d like to study civil engineering. Bartlett says she’d like to use her active imagination to “draw things that can be made real one day.”

Summer’s not for lazing around. All around the area, students and teachers are still engaged in teaching and learning.

But after eight years, this is Calhoun’s last summer at the UW. He’s leaving in mid-August to become associate vice president in academic affairs at the University of North Alabama.

“I’m a Southern boy,” he said. He’ll be near his mother, who’s turning 85 soon. Calhoun grew up in Tuskegee, Ala.

His great-grandparents are buried on the campus of the Tuskegee Institute, where his great-grandfather was part of the original faculty recruited by Booker T. Washington.

At Tuskegee, education was about much more than job prospects or potential income. Its mission was to uplift people.

Some of that is happening around here, too.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.