I didn’t know what to expect on my first day as a teacher’s assistant for middle schoolers. It was my first teaching experience ever at the Imhotep Academy, a year-round program of The Science House at NC State University (NCSU) that introduces traditionally underrepresented students in grades six through eight to science, mathematics and technology (STEM). I was a first-year graduate statistics student at NCSU, so I still had a lot to learn, but now, I had the opportunity to get young students excited about mathematics and statistics. It was very important for me to a good job and present the field in a good light. The teacher for the class was very confident and had taught that age group before, but I was still nervous.
On the first day of class, we talked to the students about ratios and proportions. We garnered their interest by showing them a picture from the internet of what appeared to be thousands of shark fins drying on a rooftop. The question we asked them was, “How would anyone be able to provide a close estimate of the number of shark fins in the picture without actually counting them?” The students then brainstormed ways in which they could count the fins on the rooftop. The students thought of different strategies such as figuring out an average, using area, and even using volume to come up with a number. We really wanted to show them how the mathematical concepts they have learned in school could be applied to real-world problems.
We then transitioned the concept of estimation into developing scales and using proportions over the next couple of classes. The students received a picture of a crime scene and a scale for the scene. We then asked them to calculate the area of different parts of the crime scene using the picture and scale. We made it fun by recreating the crime scene so that they could check their work by physically measuring the scene. The students asked lots of questions as we walked them through the process of using fractions and making sure that the decimals were in the right places. We also had the students carry out the calculations by hand. We wanted to make sure that they knew how to manipulate fractions without the aid of a calculator. As the students asked questions, I started to realize how much of an impact that I could make. The strategies that I have used so many years ago to do long division and fraction multiplication came back to me and so I took the time to meet students where they were in their learning and explain step-by-step what to do. The individualized attention that I was able to give the students was something that they were missing in school.
Unfortunately, in a subject like mathematics or statistics, it is really easy to get behind if a student does not learn certain steps. I believe that in large and crowded classes, this becomes a common problem. Once students start to get behind, they start to think that they are not good at mathematics and they start perceive others who know those certain steps as “smart”. I think that these problems can be combated through more personalized attention in settings such as at the Imhotep Academy. I started to get really good at identifying where the gaps were for the students and explaining those gaps in a nonjudgmental and encouraging way. It was very gratifying because then, students would get that “Ah Ha!” moment and their frustration would immediately turn into exhilaration.
Transitioning from graduate student to teacher was a little daunting at first, but after interacting with the students, made me become really passionate about continuing to be an educator in academia in the future. I want to create and facilitate similar programs at my future academic institution to introduce and train young underrepresented students in mathematics and statistics. As a graduate student, I was reluctant to volunteer because I didn’t think that I would have enough time, but I am so glad that I did. The perspective that I gained at the Imhotep Academy has initiated a budding desire in me to become an educator.