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Primed for success

Four freshmen lead translation project

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An idea came to Nigel Michki in the form of "divine inspiration" - completely out of the blue. After discussing the idea with some friends, "that would be neat" became "we should really do that."

The Primer Project began.

Michki, a freshman computational physics major, and three other freshmen hope to change the face of bilingualism through the use of a primer. The four freshmen have already begun creating one for New York's high school math curriculum and plan on distributing it to public schools in Buffalo.

A primer is a short guide or overview to a subject or field, according to Michki, who is the project's coordinator. The group plans to create three separate primers - one for each of the three mandatory mathematics subjects in New York: Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II/Trigonometry.

The group hopes its primer will aid students whose native language is not English and increase the number of students who pass the New York State Regents exams.

"It's a shame that not only are students failing English exams, they're also failing math exams because they can't understand the math, and then they're failing the science exams because they can't understand the math or the English," Michki said. "The goal [of] this [project] is to offer students a way around that."

The primer will serve as a resource for students to use while completing their homework. Modeled like a set of notes, each section will include the introduction to a topic, relevant equations and variables, dos and don'ts and a fully solved example problem.

The book will contain parallel languages so English is on one page while the same information is translated into the target language on the page next to it. Kelly Coughlin, a freshman undecided major and The Primer Project's co-creator, said this layout will help facilitate a smoother transition into English for students.

According to Dr. Tamara Alsace, director of multilingual education for Buffalo Public Schools, there were over 1,400 students in her system who couldn't read English but could read Spanish during the 2011-12 school year. The first primer produced will have Spanish translations. The group hopes to have the first primer implemented by fall 2013.

Dante Iozzo, a freshman mathematics and physics major, is another co-creator of the project and is in charge of translation. He plans to translate into Karen, Somali, Arabic, Burmese, Nepali, Kirundi, Swahili, Vietnamese, Persian and Bengali, as those languages represent the English as a Second Language (ESL) population of Buffalo. Students who speak those languages have the highest needs, after Spanish speakers, because there is a high number of refugees in Buffalo, according to Iozzo.

The group also has the support of three international organizations in Buffalo - the International Institute, Jericho Road and Journey's End - that have agreed to help with translation services. The students hope to bring refugees into the project by involving them in the translation process.

The volunteer base working on the project is comprised of approximately 45 UB students who have agreed to write a section of the English base or translate into a target language.

Anyone who knows another language or who is interested in writing is welcome to become a part of the project, Michki said.

Michki also stressed the mathematical concepts will not be lost in translation and, to ensure accuracy, he plans on incorporating a glossary of terms provided by New York into the translation process. He plans on ensuring consistent formatting and creating a uniform voice between the writers, translators and editors through frequent meetings and constant communication.

"[The primer] has to be written in a way that is both understandable by anyone who can read it and it also has to be very easy to translate into different languages," said Andrew Harris, a freshman mechanical engineering major and co-creator.

While Harris is heading the style and editing of the primer, Coughlin is focused on acquiring funding for the project. She has researched grant applications directly from UB through the Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (CURCA) and the Honors College, and she also found a Google grant that could fit the project. But securing money has proved difficult because a lot of funding from corporations is only available to not-for-profit organizations.

The group did not anticipate how expensive the project would be. Both translation and printing costs are "exorbitant," so the students are looking for all the financial support they can get, Coughlin said. They are considering forming a not-for-profit if they need to secure more funding.

The four Honors College freshmen are using the support of UB faculty and community members to guide them through the overwhelming process of heading such a large project.

"It didn't seem too hard at the time," Michki said. "[Now] we're discovering it's a little more difficult. But we have a lot of support, so that helps push us on. Most of the people that we talk to about this project [with] think it's fantastic."

The group hopes its primer project will extend beyond the Buffalo Public Schools system and serve as an example for others to expand upon. The students ultimately hope to be the basis for an open-source math primer that can be available to everyone, according to Harris.

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