Community college students struggle with math, prompting schools to implement innovative approaches.

ALBANY, Ore. – At 7:15 am on a Monday morning in May at northwestern Oregon’s Linn-Benton Community College, math professor Michael Lopez stands in front of 14 students in his “math for welders” class, with a tape measure on his belt. “I’m your OSHA inspector,” he announces. “Three-sixteenths of an inch difference, and you’re in violation. You’ll face a fine.”

In this class, Lopez assigns a project that the students might encounter on the job: calculating the rung spacing on a steel ladder attached to a wall. The stakes are high, with thousands of dollars involved in such constructions that pose various challenges. To meet inspection standards, the rungs must be evenly spaced to within one-sixteenth of an inch.

For many community college students pursuing welding and other technical degrees, math poses a significant obstacle. Lisa Avery, the president of Linn-Benton Community College, explains that after analyzing their data, they discovered that many students in career and technical education (CTE) programs were facing hurdles in math courses, preventing them from completing their degrees. This is a common issue as over 60 percent of community college students enroll unprepared for college-level work, with math being the subject they struggle with the most.

To address this, Linn-Benton collaborated with the math department to create specialized courses tailored to CTE students, starting with welding, culinary arts, and criminal justice programs. The math for welders course was introduced in 2013.

The impact of the math for welders course has been significant, with a 93% pass rate and 83% achievement of all learning goals, according to school data from 2017. This course equips students with the skills to apply arithmetic, geometry, algebra, and trigonometry to solve welding-related problems. Following this success, a similar course was developed for the automotive technology program.

One student, Zane Azmane, shared how the math for welders course changed his perspective on math, turning his initial aversion into success. Previously failing in high school math, Azmane excelled in the Linn-Benton course, realizing the practical applications of equations like setting ladder rungs.

The goal at Linn-Benton is to revolutionize how technical students approach math by making it directly relevant to their field of specialization.

Math professor Michael Lopez helps a student work through an algorithm for calculating ladder rung placement in his math for welders class.

Some experts believe that integrating contextual math teachings could reshape math education on a broader scale.

Research suggests that teaching math within real-world contexts has a strong theoretical foundation and empirical support. A 2011 paper by Dolores Perin, professor emerita at Columbia University Teachers College, highlights the efficacy of applied math approaches in improving student performance. This is echoed by a 2006 study involving high school CTE students which found enhanced outcomes in standardized tests when math was taught in an applied manner.

While there is limited research on math in CTE at the college level, James Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education, acknowledges the potential of integrated math education.

Oregon stands out for its proactive adoption of contextual math education, albeit at a gradual pace.

In Southern Oregon’s Rogue Community College, math instructor Doug Gardner embarked on a mission to provide students with practical insights into math’s relevance. Addressing students’ perennial question of “Why do we need to know this?”, Gardner transformed the algebra curriculum to focus on practical applications like volume calculations and load-bearing capacities.

The Hechinger Report

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