Steve Kahn was surprised when the call came.
A representative with Oakland University President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz’s office said she wanted to speak with him and asked if Kahn could arrange some time to meet.
“It came out of the blue,” said Kahn, co-founder of Wayne State University’s Math Corps and director of WSU’s Center for Excellence and Equity in Mathematics. “I figured something’s up, but that it was because Oakland had recently decided to open a Math Corps site of its own. I thought it might be something good because she’s been an amazing supporter right from the beginning — but I didn’t expect, you know, what it was.”
Instead, Pescovitz informed Kahn that he had been selected to receive an honorary doctor of science honoris causa from OU for his work with Math Corps. The program — created at Wayne State in 1991 by Kahn and fellow College of Liberal Arts and Sciences math professor Leonard Boehm — provides a summer camp; year-round Saturday programs and enrichment courses for middle and high school students; and at the college level, the WSU Emerging Scholars Program.
During the April 23, 2022, commencement, Pescovitz praised Kahn as a “visionary and successful academic leader who has made lasting and beneficial impacts on students and scholars of all ages in Southeast Michigan and beyond.” After being introduced by Pescovitz to the audience as “Dr. Dr. Steve Kahn,” he jokingly corrected the title. “You know, in mathematics that's called doctor squared.”
He’s even quicker to point out the honorary degree isn’t solely his.
“This needs to be seen — by our kids, supporters and important stakeholders — as an award for the kids in the Math Corps,” Kahn said. “The day I received the honor, we had just finished our Saturday program. I talked to them about this. It was a wonderful opportunity to let them know just how wonderful they are — but also to tout them for not only their achievements, but the achievements of the 4,000 kids who have come before — for 30 years — and tried to make them understand that this is just another reason for them to believe in their own greatness.
“It was important for the kids to understand that oftentimes, when a group of people or an organization does extraordinary things, it’s the leader who is acknowledged,” he continued, “but this was their award.”
It was an honor multiplied many times over, in Kahn’s eyes, by the fact that receiving the same recognition that day was Sarah Collins Rudolph — an icon of the civil rights movement. During that same Saturday Math Corps session, Kahn showed the students a video of the Birmingham church bombing in 1963.
“Not many people know that there was a fifth little girl there that day,” he said. “Four died, including her sister. So that was the other thing I wanted to point out to the kids — understand what place you’re in when you sit here in the Math Corps. Understand that Math Corps just got invited onto the same stage as Sarah Collins Rudolph.”
‘Loving and believing in kids’
Kahn will be the first to say that the secret to Math Corps’ success isn’t math. Sure, he said, the easiest thing is to look at it as a STEM program. But it goes deeper.
“If you want to replicate the curriculum, that’s no big deal. It’s like, ‘Here’s the syllabus.’ But how do you replicate loving and believing in kids?” Kahn said. “If you ask our kids, ‘What’s the Math Corps about?’ the first thing they would tell you is, ‘Well, it’s not a math program.’ They’d say, ‘It’s about us.’”
Kahn, who came to Wayne State in 1981 as a professor of mathematics, earned a bachelor of science in mathematics at Stony Brook University and a Ph.D. at the University of Maryland. During his early years as a professor, Kahn taught WSU courses during the day and volunteered his time at the high school development center, where he worked with high school students who had been expelled. For five years, Kahn worked with approximately 150 students.
He felt that more could be done to meet the needs of the city’s at-risk students, though. In 1991, he partnered with Boehm to form Math Corps. Together, they created a combined academic and mentoring program for Detroit Public Schools, designed to provide support for students as they pursue their education from elementary and middle school through high school and, ultimately, college.
“We started with 60 kids and are now up to 400 on campus, every summer. Nationally and regionally, we’re up to 10 Math Corps sites,” Kahn continued. “And all of those, except Oakland University, are the result of organic growth, meaning that in every case, people came to us.
"I will get phone calls from somebody saying, ‘Oh my God, I just saw this documentary on PBS ,’ or ‘I heard about this through a conference,’ or, ‘My friend told me about this and we want to do it at our university.’”
Over the years, Kahn and Math Corps have earned multiple awards, including national recognition for positively impacting children in Detroit. Kahn received the Distinguished College or University Teaching of Mathematics Award from the Mathematical Association of America-Michigan, and he was a finalist for WSU’s Spirit of Community Award.
In 2016, Math Corps was bestowed with the New York Life Foundation’s coveted Excellence in Summer Learning Award. That same year, the National Science Foundation awarded Math Corps nearly $3 million to replicate its summer program nationwide. Since then, the program has nationally set up shop in Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland and in Atlanta at Spelman College — the oldest historically Black college for women in America. This summer will also see a Math Corps in Toledo. Back home, Math Corps can also be found at Oakland University, the University of Michigan and the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
“We’re getting close to where this is a feather in Wayne State’s cap — leading a network of pretty much every major university in Southeast Michigan,” Kahn said. “Not to mention that it will soon be the lead institution for a program that’s maybe in 20 cities across the country.”
Math Corps has also taken a place locally in Detroit’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Senior High School, running the entire ninth grade math program. For Kahn, it makes perfect sense.
“Think about how a university typically recruits students: Send a math professor to a school to give a one-hour talk on math or on a career, or something at a career day, but that’s it,” he said. “We have four Wayne State teachers at Martin Luther King, teaching every one of their ninth graders every day for this whole year, and then we’ll continue next year. If it works, the plan is for Detroit Public Schools Community District to implement it themselves. There’s already talk of us expanding to other schools. If we’re able to build that pipeline, then there should never be an enrollment problem again.”
But even with all the attention, accolades and accomplishments, Kahn still keeps everything in perspective.
“Really, it all began with two nutball guys wanting to hang out with kids on Saturdays and help. That’s what I did for a number of years,” Kahn said. “Math Corps might have been founded by the two of us, but it was built by hundreds of amazing people dedicating themselves not only to the cause of children but also a better world.”