By: Gina Stukenholtz, Middle School HAL Teacher, Bellevue Public Schools
Change the world. Make a difference. Give back. Impact the lives of others. Give students hope. Change hearts and minds. Make learning relevant. All of those. I went to college to become a teacher for precisely all of those reasons. In 2006, I was a fresh-faced, young, energetic, burgeoning teacher in my second year of teaching. I naturally sought and soaked up any advice and information on ways to be an effective teacher. Back in those days, teachers could sign up to receive scholarly journals through the district resource library. A checklist showed up in your mailbox each August and I (over)eagerly checked too many boxes. I wanted to read them all.
In October 2006, a copy of The Technology Teacher showed up in my mailbox. I photocopied an article called “Classroom Activities Can Last a Lifetime” authored by Harry T. Roman, a retired engineer. I was a 7th grade math teacher and was always wanting to answer the pervasive question: “When will I ever need this?” I wanted to answer this persistent question with genuine answers. I wanted to give middle school math relevance. Relevance. Talk about a perpetual teaching buzz word.
Harry T. Roman wrote about his 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Wilson, who championed “school-to-career” learning. In the article, he looks back and says “I am an inventor and engineer today because of something that happened in the fourth grade, way back in 1957.” Mr. Roman tells of a project where Mrs. Wilson had them write letters to companies asking how they used science and technology to make products. He wrote to Thomas Edison Company, and his life was changed.
I admit; I stole this idea from Mr. Roman. I immediately told my principal I was doing this project and we talked through how to make it happen. That article was it; it was exactly what I was looking for. I could answer the question how math was used in the real world – not by me, a mere math teacher, but by professionals in the community. Real people, real talk, real advice. It was my best lesson of the year. It continued to be the highlight of each subsequent year of teaching. Not only did my kids get to ask the question to someone in their dream profession if math was important, but they learned the valuable skill of writing a professional letter and addressing an envelope. I can’t tell you how many kids had never addressed an envelope before.
Receiving snail mail seems on the verge of extinction; some professional recipients mentioned how surprising it was to receive a written letter from students. It was awesome delivering each letter as the responses came in later in the year. Confirmation that math was needed in each and every profession, along with sage wisdom filled each and every response. Nearly every letter said they use math on a daily basis. Numerous professionals admitted they did not find the value of their classes and studies until later. A few memorable lines include:
“It is time to embrace mathematics; I use it everyday.”
“You can be anything you want to be as long as you are willing to work hard.”
“There is not a day that goes by that I do not use math.”
“Learn as much as you can.”
“Math is the subject which opens doors to all the technical careers.”
Responses ran the gamut of professions. Responses came from near and far.
An astrophysicist with Space Telescope Science Institute responded with a blog post:
Astrovizicist Hubble Blog. Creighton’s baseball coach Ed Servais said his teacher once offered anyone $20 if they could name a profession that doesn’t use math. He still can’t come up with a single profession to this day.
A few notable letters came from Dick Vitale, Bill Self – Kansas Jayhawks basketball coach, an understudy for Sir Elton John, Thomas Wilkins – director of Omaha Symphony, Law enforcement officers including a K-9 unit and accident reconstructionists, EG&A engineers, numerous University of Nebraska coaches, including Scott Frost and Tom Osborne.
Letters came from video game designers, farmers, authors, district attorneys, restaurant owners, stay at home moms, musicians, dancers and artists. Numerous military men and women – some sent diagrams of specific math needed to fly planes in the Airforce, such as fuel burn-rate examples, and information on Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile with detailed math used in missile detection and interception. One journalist offered her aspiring student to tour Omaha World Herald and a pediatric surgeon with Children’s Hospital offered a student the opportunity to come shadow for a day. Several professionals asked to come in and give in-person demonstrations of the math they use daily in their respective professions.
I don’t have data on how many seventh graders went on to become professionals in the same field they sent their inquiries. However, I rarely had to answer the question “when will I ever use this?” after this project.
Teachers, if for no other reason, you will read the words “your teacher is right” more than you’ve ever heard the phrase before. You will be verified and feel validated by experts. You’ll see responses like “Your teacher is correct. Your teacher is a smart lady. Mrs. Stukenholtz sounds like a smart teacher. Your math teacher is right.” This project will give you major teacher cred.
I will leave you with one last quote from Mr. Roman:
“Never underestimate the power of your daily lessons and activities to influence students, often for their whole lives.”