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’Student-mathletes‘ star in community outreach and self discovery

By Greg Brewis

In a takeoff on the familiar “student-athletes,” PLU “student-mathletes” are visiting local public schools to help teachers and parents build a sense of community in mathematics education and to help teach kids that math can be fun and rewarding.

The Mathlete Coaching Program is a league of math clubs featuring PLU students helping high school, middle school and upper elementary school teachers prepare youth for the Washington State Mathematics Council Math Olympiad held each May.

Last year PLU had six students in three classrooms in three different school districts. The program was so successful that this year 20 students may participate.

Student-mathlete Laura Thompsen ’06 coached sixth-grade students in preparation for the Math Olympiad.

It all began when a high school principal asked PLU for help. Of the approximately 130 juniors in his school taking a math placement test each year, less than a dozen were qualifying for anything other than remedial math in college.

A discussion group was started that included school teachers, principals, administrators and PLU education and math faculty. They found inspiration in the book “Radical Equations” by Robert Moses, who developed an innovative initiative to teach math literacy to poor and minority students at the middle and high school levels in the rural South and the nation’s inner cities.

“Moses’ point is that proficiency in science and math are keys to successful citizenship. For him, teaching algebra through community-building is the gateway to a college education no matter what field you want to go into,” said Bryan Dorner, professor of mathematics.

“Eventually we hit on what is now the mathlete program,” Dorner said. “Having a close connection with the schools and an opportunity for our students to volunteer for an activity that is supplemental to their regular coursework is a natural for PLU because of our commitment to community service.

“The program benefits youth and the schools and it gives PLU students the experience of service-learning – setting the theme of going out and exploring your vocation, what you really want to do with your life,” Dorner said.

Sixth-grade teacher Mary Holmberg, of Meadows Elementary School in the North Thurston (Wash.) School District, sent three mathlete-coached teams to the Math Olympiad.

In a year-end assessment of her students’ math skills, the only students who exceeded grade level were the ones who participated in the mathlete program.

“Mathletes give my students positive role models,” Holmberg said.

“Closer in age to my sixth graders, the college students are ‘cooler’ than parents and teachers. I heard one of my students call them ‘math gods.’ As a result, the attention students receive from the mathletes is extra special. Student self-worth grows and instead of being math phobic they become math empowered,” she said.

PLU senior Laura Thompsen coached in Holmberg’s class last year.

“We all know of the kind of support and recognition that students receive for their accomplishments on the playing field and in many social settings. But how often are students publicly rewarded for doing well academically?” Thompsen asked. “Not often.”

“I’m here to tell these bright sixth graders that I’m a math major going to college on an academic scholarship and without it I could never afford college. While they know they like math and are good at it, for the first time they see it has big rewards. They begin to understand that colleges will pay them to do well academically.

“I’ve learned a lot from the students, too. It is such a reward to watch them work, and work, and work and then suddenly grasp a concept. Their eyes light up with excitement! In college, expectations are high and small accomplishments are not often openly celebrated,” Thompsen said.

“The sixth graders remind us to throw ourselves a little party when we finally understand something.”

Dorner believes Thompsen and other PLU students are role models and mentors who are going a long way toward dispelling the image ingrained in society that mathematics is too difficult, not relevant to daily life, and only practiced by dorks with pocket protectors.

“These kids are learning that mathematics will open doors and expand horizons in ways you’d never expect,” Dorner said.

Mathlete coaching is coordinated by the local chapter of a state program, MESA, that works to support traditionally underrepresented students in achieving and contributing to their full potential in mathematics, engineering and science.

Last month the Department of Mathematics and MESA joined the School of Business and the Department of Computer Science and Computer Engineering as residents of the Morken Center for Learning and Technology.

The dedication of the Morken Center will be held on May 5, including a keynote address by Robert B. Reich, former secretary of labor.

Student-mathlete Laura Thompsen ’06 coached sixth-grade students in preparation for the Math Olympiad.



He may have retired from the history faculty last spring, but Phil Nordquist ’56 wasn’t gone for long. During the months since his retirement, Nordquist continued his work in the archives, researching the history of the Lutheran Church in the Northwest. That work is now being performed in an official capacity. The Board of Regents recently named Nordquist to a post most thought he held all along: university historian. Nordquist will be working closely with Kris Ringdahl, university archivist.

Professor Emeritus of Religion Stewart D. Govig died unexpectedly last spring, just six weeks before his manuscript “Ronald Fangen: Church and Culture in Norway,” went to publication. It chronicles the life of a remarkable Norwegian figure who has been compared to T.S. Eliot and Francois Mauriac. The book is now available in the PLU Bookstore and as an e-book from Govig was an ordained Lutheran pastor, a Fulbright scholar and professor of religion at PLU for 45 years. He retired in 2001.

Faculty Excellence Awards were awarded at December commencement to recognize faculty in five areas: teaching, advising, mentoring, research and service. The Faculty Excellence Award in Teaching was awarded to Jessica Sklar, assistant professor of mathematics. The Faculty Excellence Award in Advising went to Keith Cooper, associate professor of philosophy. Patsy Malone, associate professor of nursing, received the Faculty Excellence Award in Mentoring. Two K.T. Tang Faculty Excellence Awards in Research were awarded, one to Chung-Shing Lee, professor of business and one to Robert Ericksen ’67, professor of history. The first Faculty Excellence Award in Service was awarded to Paul Menzel, professor of philosophy. The recipients of these awards were nominated and selected by their peers.

Four students were selected to serve as interns in the Washington State Legislature’s 2006 session. They are Kelly Fahl ’06, majoring in economics and environmental studies; Briahna Taylor ’06, majoring in English and political science; and political science majors Stefanie Freatman ’07 and Elizabeth Lamb-Ferro ’06.



© Scene 2006  •  Pacific Lutheran University  •  Spring 2006

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