Wednesday, September 27, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Solving the math problem

Times Snohomish County Bureau

Students around the state are struggling with math.

Almost half — 49 percent — didn't understand it well enough to pass the 10th-grade Washington Assessment of Student Learning last spring.

But in some classrooms, the kids are getting it, even kids who've been told they aren't good at math.

The students in Tom Clemans' precision-machining class at the Sno-Isle Technical Skills Center in Mukilteo use math to translate blueprint directions, to calibrate machines, to fabricate parts. They routinely translate fractions to decimals, a skill that eludes many students on the state's standardized test.

So what's the secret?

"Tom infuses it into the curriculum. The students do algebra, geometry and trigonometry, but they don't know they're doing it," said Steve Burch, director of Sno-

Isle, a career- and technical-training center for high-school students in Snohomish and Island counties.

Clemans, who has taught at Sno-Isle for 15 years, can relate to his students' struggles. He took math four times in college. His best grade was a D. He reached the same conclusion as many of his students.

"I told myself, 'I'm just no good at math.' "

Ten years later, when he was well into a professional machining career, a preacher/physicist friend drew a right triangle within a quarter circle, showing the relationship of the angles to the triangle's three sides.

"Suddenly, the light turned on," said Clemans, who is now writing a math textbook for machining students that will be published by a New York industrial press.

In Clemans' machining shop at the skills center, students wear safety glasses as they lean over industrial metal lathes and shave metal off a 1-inch cylinder of aluminum to create a nut and a bolt of exact dimensions. A nut with the same inner diameter as the bolt, Clemans explains, will slide right over the bolt.

Math in Clemans' class isn't a series of equations. In fact, he said, he presents very few. Rather, the math is a tool to solve problems and allow students to create something useful. Clemans speculates that so many students struggle with math because "they've never seen a practical application that interested them."

Karen Coulombe, who teaches electronics and robotics at Sno-Isle, agrees that giving students real-world problems is a key to their success.

When students need math to measure and compute the wattage in a current, the math becomes less impenetrable.

"A lot of these students have been told they're not good at math and shouldn't even try, but they are good students. They need an application to want to learn the math," Coulombe said.

Clemans said one weakness of standard high-school math classes is that students are typically introduced to new concepts once, drilled, tested and moved on.

To show his method, Clemans waves his fingers in a spiral. "I don't teach something for them to forget it," he said.

The concept of spiraling is gaining educational credence. The state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction over the summer piloted new 10th-grade math modules, each of which builds on previous lessons, returning to important principles.

Tina Butt, executive director for teaching and learning in the Mukilteo School District, said the summer-school curriculum seems promising.

The district hired good teachers, kept the class size small and used problems that demanded high levels of skill. Each class also lasted four hours, and the intensity led to close relationships among students and teachers, Butt said.

Another strategy being tried in both reading and math is to enroll students in double periods of the classes in which they're struggling, on the theory that giving them more time and more exposure to materials will reinforce learning.

But these double, or support classes, as they're sometimes called, reduce the number of electives students can take, and some national experts say that may be counterproductive.

Willard Daggett, president of the International Center for Leadership in Education, said infusing popular electives with math is a better strategy than making students take a double-dose of a class they don't like and don't think they're good at.

"Instead of ninth-grade math, the student should be given two periods of art or an elective the kid likes, with tons of math integrated into it," Daggett said.

That might be a definition of the Sno-Isle classes.

Snohomish High School student Zach Henderson said he found math "really confusing" and wasn't a particularly good student. But in Clemans' machining class, he said, the math translates to "real situations."

Henderson, in the second year of the course, patiently explains the geometry and trigonometry needed to calculate the angles of a groove cut in metal and the depth at which a rod would rest in the groove. He said one of Clemans' strengths is teaching how to break down complex problems into more manageable parts.

Last year, as a first-year machining student, Henderson placed fourth in the state in a machining-skills competition.

"Turns out I was actually kind of good at it," he said.

James Smith, a Sultan High School senior who, like the other students, spends half the school day at Sno-Isle and the other half at his high school, said he struggled with algebra and geometry in the classroom.

But in the machining class, he said, "I catch on pretty quick." Smith demonstrates the workings of a micrometer, a tool to measure minute distances. He translates the ruled lines on the tool into decimal points and converts the decimal points into thousandths of an inch. One rotation of the micrometer's spindle translates into 0.025 of an inch.

Besides gaining self-confidence, Smith has become a leader, routinely offering to help other students, Clemans said. This fall, he was elected machining-class president.

And while Smith's first career choice is firefighter, he said machining is his second choice.

"I found something I like," he said. "I know what I'm doing."

Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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