Saturday Math Academy at PSCS

Founder of Engageable Designs and Puget Sound Community School (PSCS) math facilitator, Akin Alston, recently reinvigorated an important youth math enrichment program—one that was sadly in stasis for the last few years (because: Covid). Saturday Math Academy is a program Akin and his wife Marilyn started 14 years ago as a resource for elementary school students (K-5), in the hopes young people might find joy in math and build lasting affinity outside the traditional classroom setting. PSCS, located in the C-ID is providing a home base for Saturday Math Academy and it’s drop in elementary school students—with PSCS high school students coming in on weekends to provide added mentorship and guidance.

Prior to 2020, SMA was held in various community centers and libraries, mostly in south Seattle and intentionally serving BIPOC and first generation youth. Rather than reviewing math in the same way students typically might during the school week, SMA is about exploring math through games, art, projects, and connection.

To Akin, Saturdays are for kids to decompress from the stress of the school week. As such, SMA isn’t meant to be lectures or a classes—it’s meant to let students engage with math through play and connection. “Common educational approaches to math often start with the textbook, but formulas are written to explain the things that we discover in nature, not the other way around.” Akin believes math is “incidental, not consequential”: Math is present in everything from science to music, art, games, and even writing. When students get to delve into the subjects that really interest them, they stumble upon new patterns. Discovering these patterns and investigating how or why they exist is not only the most organic way for humans to practice math, it’s also how we can learn (or re-learn) to really get excited about math.

In addition to learning from nature, Akin also believes that students, especially elementary age kids, learn best through peer-teaching. When young people are able to learn from those in closer age groups, it not only circumvents the sense of hierarchy that can occur between kids and adults, but also creates a companionship that allows learning to happen as a conversation or a laugh between friends. This is why SMA features other students as mentors rather than older adults. Ultimately, however, these mentors take on a supportive role, while littles get to be the leaders of their own learning.

Akin describes his vision as an “urban mathematical renaissance.” The common primary education experience for many people, including Akin, is that math, among other subjects, is instructed rather than explored. Everyone is taught the same formulas in the same fashion, and students who don’t understand as quickly are punished. But we know disciplinary action in schools isn’t often leveled equitably or impartially. We know that punishment is far more common and more severe for students of color, especially Black students—and trauma from punishment stays with kids into adulthood and is passed down through generations. “By creating an environment in which children can engage with math in their own way, however, we can break this cycle early and help them develop a love of math.”

Saturday Math Academy is all about doing things differently.