A number of dedicated students spent the first few weeks of their precious summer vacation not at the pool, but in the classroom. Doing math.
For the past two weeks, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's GEAR UP program hosted a summer Math Blast Off to help rising eighth- and ninth-graders get a head start on next year's geometry and Algebra I classes.
"The best predictor for college success is early passage of Algebra I," said program director Hunter Huckabay. "We know if we can get these guys through Algebra I in ninth, and hopefully eighth grade, we know their chances of success in college go up."
Huckabay said only 18 percent of ninth graders from Howard and Brainerd High schools, two of GEAR UP's target schools, enroll in college after graduation.
GEAR UP -- Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs -- works to increase those numbers by placing graduate and undergraduate students from UTC at four underserved middle schools to help teachers during the school year and to mentor students on the road to college.
"GEAR UP participants are low-income, mostly minority students who come from families and schools whose children go to college in very low numbers," Huckabay said.
About 65 students voluntarily regularly showed up at UTC's College of Engineering throughout the two weeks to strengthen their math skills and learn about college life from 15 volunteer college students.
Morning sessions were spent in the classroom practicing what they learned last year and getting a head start on principles they'll see in the coming school year.
"There's a stigma with math. It's kind of like a foreign language, and so this helps them get comfortable with it," said Adrienne Alford, who teachers reading at Orchard Knob Middle School.
To help solidify the principles, the morning sessions came with hands-on application. For one exercise, the students were asked to design blueprints for a park on graph paper.
Four girls set to enter the eighth grade this year clustered around a table Wednesday, heads together, laboring over a giant piece of graph paper.
They had chosen to name their park "Variety of Love." They included an all-you-can-eat buffet, a petting zoo and a "love boat" to serve as a water taxi about the grounds. They carefully plotted each section out on the graph paper, using geometry principles to figure out the areas and how they worked in the space.
"I think when you make it relevant, they get it and are excited about it," Alford said.
The four girls, Dasha Brown, Deiza Julks, Lyanna Wells and Laniesha Gatewood, all agreed that the program was helping them.
Gatewood said she struggled with math before the extra tutoring she received through GEAR UP. But she says her confidence in the tricky subject is growing and she feels ready for the coming year.
"We get to learn the stuff before we get there," she said.
After a couple hours in the classroom, the kids were swept away from their desks and out for some fun. On Wednesday, they did everything from learn about the fascinating details of concrete to attend a lab about the stock market. They even got to dissect a shark and inspect its insides.
Huckabay said it's important to let them see that college can be exciting and fun.
"It shows them college is not all classes and long walks," Huckabay said.
On Friday, the students presented the final plans for their parks, and the teachers and staff held a small awards ceremony to celebrate their hard work.
Shamira Freeman, program coordinator for GEAR UP, said she understands the value of the program because she didn't have anyone to guide her through the college process.
"I grew up in the inner city and I never had programs like this. I had to find my own way," she said. "That's my motivation. That's why I do this."
Contact staff writer Lindsay Burkholder at email@example.com or 423-757-6592.