Let’s be honest, math was far from being an engaging and interesting subject in school. Now, professors are coming up with new ways to motivate their students to dive into it. A recent report talks about a revolutionary approach in community colleges that focuses on integrating real-world cases into classes. This, in turn, is already showing positive results in career and technical education programs.

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Key Takeaways:

  • After applying math to real-world scenarios, colleges like Linn-Benton are dramatically boosting student success rates.
  • Tailoring math courses to specific trades helps students understand its relevance and importance.
  • Oregon mandates that four-year colleges accept applied math courses from community colleges.

Hands-On Math at Linn-Benton Community College

At Linn-Benton Community College in Oregon, math professor Michael Lopez is changing the game by turning abstract algebra problems into practical tasks. Imagine this: It’s a cold, gray Monday morning, and Lopez, dressed casually in a hoodie and jeans, is pacing in front of his “math for welders” class.

“I’m your OSHA inspector,” he declares. “Three sixteenths of an inch difference, and you’re in violation.”

Lopez gives his students a real-world task: figure out the rung spacing on a steel ladder. Instead of abstract symbols, they use industry-specific variables like tolerances and wall height. The class divides into teams, each with different specifications, and works on calculating the correct placement of rungs. Lopez inspects their work, passing or failing each team based on accuracy.

This practical approach has yielded impressive results. Since 2017, 93 percent of students in the “math for welders” course have passed, with 83 percent meeting all learning goals. This success has prompted the college to expand similar programs to other technical fields, like automotive technology.

How Did It Impact Students?

Zane Azmane, a student who once struggled with math, found new confidence in Lopez’s class.

“I absolutely hated math in high school. It didn’t apply to anything I needed at the moment,” said Azmane. “We actually learned equations I’m going to use, like setting ladder rungs.”

Now, he’s applying equations directly to tasks he’ll encounter in his welding career. This contextual approach changes how students perceive and engage with matt and makes it a tool they can use in their daily work rather than an abstract challenge.

Research backs this hands-on method. A 2011 study by Dolores Perin from Columbia University suggests that teaching math in context has strong theoretical and empirical support. Students start with a practical problem, learn a math principle to solve it, and then apply it to similar problems. This cycle helps them understand and retain mathematical concepts. James Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education, likens math to a wrench in a toolbox:

“People learn almost anything better in context because then it has meaning.”

Expanding the Approach to Be More Inclusive

Other colleges are taking notice. At Rogue Community College, Doug Gardner faced the persistent student question: “Why do we need to know this?” To answer, he developed applied algebra courses with the help of a National Science Foundation grant. These courses focus on practical applications, like calculating the volume of gravel needed for a project, which are directly relevant to students’ future jobs.

Since the introduction of these applied courses, the pass rate has risen to 73 percent, compared to 59 percent in traditional algebra classes. This success is a breath of fresh air for older students who often balance education with family and work commitments.

Oregon legislators see the value in this approach. In 2021, they passed a law requiring all four-year colleges to accept an applied math course from community colleges. This course, “Math in Society,” teaches students to use probability and statistics to interpret scientific results and understand political processes like gerrymandering.

Even though there are limited resources and faculty time, the success stories from Linn-Benton and Rogue Community Colleges provide a strong case for the broader adoption of applied math. With dedicated instructors like Lopez and Gardner, applied math is proving to be an effective way to make math meaningful and accessible (a win-win situation). Most importantly, it will prepare students for real-world challenges and careers.

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