Math can be maddening for students. But for those interested in STEM-related careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, math is a must.

On Friday, more than 600 middle-school students from around the state came to Utah Valley University to collaborate with professionals and their fellow classmates through hands-on experiences to tighten up their math skills as part of the Utah Prep program.

“The purpose of the program is to prepare them mathematically as they progress through junior high, so when they get to high school they can take a higher-level math classes, and then when they get to college, UVU, wherever they decide to go, they can major in any STEM field they want,” said Carlos Cortez, program director for sponsored research with the Office of Sponsored Programs at UVU.

Stargazing, science experiments, making ice cream and engineering paper airplanes, bottle rockets and other projects were just a few of the activities students learned as part of the one-day expo.

Though, the expo was simply the grand finale of a summer of learning.

The full Utah Prep program spans over seven weeks during three summers for students between sixth and ninth grades. Students are recruited into the program the summer after sixth grade, and if they’re successful, they move on to two more summers of learning.

“Our program originated here at UVU,” said Cortez. Cortez helped begin the program five years ago as a way to jumpstart math skills in middle-school students.

“What happens is students get to college and in their freshman year in engineering they find out they can’t do the math. So, they change majors and do other things. Though this program, we’re preparing these students to be successful down the road,” he explained.

And with the growth of the program, students from outside of Utah County can now take part in the program.

Weber State and Dixie State universities have begun Utah Prep programs at their schools and programs have also begun at Utah State University Eastern’s Blanding campus and also in Tuba City, Arizona, in conjunction with American Indian Services. “We have students here from the Navajo reservation that are attending the prep program at the USU extension campus in Blanding,” said Cortez.

The Sci-Tech Expo brought together students from all of the program’s sites for a collaborative day of learning.

“Our curriculum revolves around mathematics, but we also have a really strong career awareness component,” said Cortez. “We bring in professionals in engineering, science and math, and they tell their story of what they did to get to the jobs that they’re doing and the math they use. It opens their eyes to career opportunities down the road.”

The program also warms students up to the sometimes intimidating prospect of being a college student.

“They learn to navigate the campus, and they begin to feel comfortable here,” said Cortez. “It’s a pathway for them to prepare for college.”

As students filed into an auditorium to watch “Dream Big: Engineering Our World,” Cortez explained, “These students are our future. That’s who will go on to change the world.”