LOWELL -- A group of Lowell High School students were barking in a makeshift classroom in the Wannalancit Mills building.
One 16-year-old gave a throaty, "Woof." Another girl let loose a sharp, "Ruff." The teen they were barking at hastily scribbled an algebra calculation on a blank piece of paper.
The students were part of a national project called the Algebra Project, which trains high-school students to become math tutors for younger students. The exercise they did on Thursday teaches communication, said Algebra Project trainer Daitwan David.
David gave names to several algebra calculations, things like music, water and, in this case, "dog."
The students broke into three groups and had to come up with a secret code to communicate that name to a person chosen to write the calculation. Whoever writes the calculation first wins a point.
Although the Algebra Project is known across the nation, this is the first time students in Lowell can take the program, which is offered by Gear Up at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
The project was started in 1982 to help students understand the concepts of math, and has now spread to 22 sites across 13 states.
The group will tutor middle-school students in math after school at the Bartlett, Butler, Stoklosa, Sullivan and Rogers middle schools once the training is complete.
"Our ultimate goal is to help kids with their MCAS," said Bowa Tucker, Gear Up Project Manager at UMass Lowell. "(The high-school students) are really having a lot of fun with the training. They're very eager to start working with the middle-school kids."
The juniors and sophomores from Lowell High traded in their February vacation for a week of seven-hour-a-day training sessions. The project pays them $7.50 per hour and gives them tools to teach others in the community.
"The first reason I did it was for the money, I'll be honest," said Hung Phan, a 17-year-old junior. "But now it's become pretty fun, and we're learning how to help people."
Mike Tivey, 15, said he believes four days is a minor sacrifice compared to the good they will do as tutors.
Tequisha Dunn, 18, a junior trainer from Cambridge, is very familiar with the project. She was taught math by a tutor when she was in middle school, then she became a tutor. Now, she's helping train tutors.
"I was angry. I didn't want to do math after school," Dunn said about how she felt when she was tutored at 11 years old. "I was bad. I had an attitude."
But math started to come easier, and she decided when she was in high school to train over her summer vacation and become a tutor. She said teaching others helped her learn math much better.
"We try to make it fun, so you're not always sitting down," Dunn said of the training sessions. "I think if you can teach something, you really know it."
Tucker said he looked for students who had participated in other Gear Up programs, and he asked high-school teachers to suggest students who might be a good fit.
Central Street resident Marcela Vilela, 17, said she her physics teacher recommended her.
Not all students need to be a whiz at math. Jonathan Perez, 16, said he has always had trouble learning math, especially when it comes to paying close attention to the problems.
"I thought it would be good for me. Plus, I can help other kids who might face the same challenges," Perez said.
The teenagers are a little anxious about actually tutoring, which could start as soon as late this month. They'll be working about two hours a week after school.
"I'm nervous," said 17-year-old Monica Dockery. "What if they have a problem that I can't help them with? I know it's going to be a challenge, but I like challenges. That's why I did this."