Connecting students and scientists

An update from M4S Founder Justine Henning

What fun it has been to introduce my own math students to Math4Science this semester!

This autumn, I have had the good fortune to fill in for a teacher on parental leave from Urban Academy Laboratory High School, an alternative public school in New York City.

Aside from experiencing first-hand the challenges of teaching math in the classroom, I get to be part of a vibrant, supportive community of budding adults from all over NYC, students from all walks of life and family backgrounds. The deep, broad diversity of the student body and staff at Urban and the caring guidance students receive from their teachers and each other ought to be a model for schools throughout this country.

Τoday, one of my students told me I was “doing it again.” Doing what, I asked. “Challenging” was her one-word response. And that’s what classroom teaching is, for the teachers as well as for students asked to rise to high standards (and to take the kind of active, creative role in their education that Urban expects and I hope I’m delivering).

The work of a math teacher (especially at a textbook-averse school like Urban) involves creating in-class assignments for students to puzzle out in small groups and individually. It also involves drafting homework assignments and tests & quizzes.  Just as important and creative is the work involved in building constructive — trusting, communicative — relationships with and between students: relationships that enable all kinds of learning to happen.

A Math4Science lesson begins by enhancing those relationships.  “How do you get to school?” That’s how M4S became part of my geometry class: with a question every student could answer, whether they could name the angles created by a line crossing two parallel lines or not. Class began by giving all of my students a voice and an opportunity to share part of their daily routine with me — something I would not normally have had a chance to hear from them.  As they named the buses and train lines they took from the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and other NYC locations to Manhattan’s Upper East Side each morning, students compared routes and offered each other advice.

And then I introduced Civil Engineer Tysheina Robertson, who helped the City of Denver build its new commuter rail. Students read her M4S profile. I also shared the profile of Applied Mathematician Erika Camacho, who immigrated to the United States and studied at the Los Angeles high school depicted in the movie Stand and Deliver.

After reading about them, my geometry students had the opportunity to ask questions of Tysheina and Erika, who graciously emailed me their answers. C., one student, looked up retinitis pigmentosa on her phone during class. Camacho told her that she chose to model that disease mathematically because it interested her own students. I worried that M. overstepped when he asked Robertson how much money she made. Her answer gave my students a sense of the range of salaries they might earn if they study civil engineering as well as an appreciation of the job satisfaction they would enjoy.

In my calculus class, I mentioned that we would be reading the profile of a spacecraft systems engineer who took apart his baby bottles and other items when he was growing up and put them back together. Had they ever taken anything apart? Built anything?

Suddenly, I learned that these top-level math students (getting to calculus in high school represents a wonderful accomplishment) had built electrical circuits with one dad, taken apart handguns with a grandfather, hot-wired cars with a brother (no theft involved!), constructed a new room for a grandmother, made flan with another grandmother, and helped build an aquaponics system to make a school more sustainable.  Were it not for Math4Science, we would not have learned these things about each other. And I would not have known how far along the path towards becoming engineers my students have already walked.

As we read Paul Mirel’s profile and a recent calculus-related email exchange I had with him, students were full of questions. What’s the Corialis effect? Why do tiny subatomic particles wink in and out of existence? How are the wires Mirel uses — wire thinner than human hair — constructed? And is the science and technology depicted in students’ favorite super-hero films realistic?

The bridge between high school math and STEM careers became clear as we read the answers Mirel, Camacho, and Robertson sent, each addressed to the student who had asked the question.

We need these students and other kids across the country and the rest of the world to learn the math and science necessary to fix 21st-century problems. You can help us train teachers to ignite and feed their students’ curiosity and to build the kind of relationships in their classrooms that will inspire and prepare the scientists of tomorrow.