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More than a Math Class

More than a Math Class

High school teacher hopes students take more than math lessons from classroom

By Mindy Moore

What exactly is the point of geometry?

High school math teacher Tom Moore could give you a dozen reasons why geometry matters. Now, more importantly, his students can do the same.

Moore teaches a different kind of math class at Loveland High School in northern Colorado called "Geometry in Construction." Students learn geometry concepts and problem-solving by building a house.

The Geometry in Construction class is taught by Moore and Scott Burke, an industrial technology teacher. Moore teaches the kids geometry and Burke teaches them construction principles and safety. Armed with knowledge and tool belts, the students head outside to apply it "in the construction zone."

"We learned equations in class... and then we went outside and learned how to use them to frame walls," Tom's son, Aaron, said after taking the class last year during its inaugural run.

Moore hopes students take away more than just equations and formulas from his classroom.

"Taking this class teaches them that they can build something that is much bigger than themselves and that they can take on things people think they can't do," Moore said. He remembered one time a student told him that Geometry in Construction was "the first math class he didn't feel dumb in."

Another student spent weeks in the classroom struggling with formulas to find the volume of three-dimensional objects. "That same kid went outside to dig a foundation and realized he could find volume of anything. That makes it worth it," Moore said.

The students assemble the two-bedroom house from the ground up in a corner of the school parking lot. Moore and Burke supervise, but the kids do everything themselves, from laying the foundation to raising the walls, hanging drywall and wiring the home for electricity.

"The students have ownership of this program," Moore said. "Once they're up and building it is their house. It's not the school's house and it's not my house, it's their house. They take a great pride in that."

"I really liked plumbing," Jonathan Link said, a sophomore at LHS and past Geometry in Construction student. "It was tough getting our homework done because we wanted to go outside and build."

Students at LHS have shown great enthusiasm for the program and Moore and Burke had to create more class sections to accommodate as many students as possible. Moore says there is still a waiting list.

"Why did I want to take this class? Besides the face he's my dad? I did it because this wasn't your normal, just-sit-in-a-classroom math class," Aaron said.

As the house came together, Moore and Burke saw more than physical barriers being tackled and concrete foundations being laid. Students were bonding with people that they might never have even acknowledged in the halls. At a school district meeting last year, Burke and Moore invited students to speak on a panel and talk about their time in Geometry in Construction. Without any notes or preparation, the kids talked for over an hour "about the ins and outs of the program," Burke said.

"One student compared being in the class to being on a sports team. Another kid got up and said, ‘No, it's more like being a part of a family,'" Burke said. "This was huge, realizing the kids were gelling like this. We were really excited."

The students work on the houses in teams during the mornings, afternoons and even after school. They have to learn to communicate and work as a team for the house to come together successfully.

"You'd be working on a wall or on the roof, and your classmates would be holding you up," Aaron said. "Trust was really important."

The success of the Geometry in Construction class has meant long hours and a lot of hard work. Moore and Burke began discussing ways to integrate their two curriculums in 2005. Since receiving a federal grant to fund the first class, the program is in its second academic year and more than 150 students have completed or are currently enrolled in the class. Moore and Burke have filled their days with instructing, brainstorming, curriculum writing and countless trips to the hardware store.

"We joke that we are gluttons for punishment." Burke said. "We must like to work all the time."

"One of the most challenging parts has been overcoming the red tape put up by the school district," Moore said. "This has never been done before and some people use it as an excuse to why it can't be done in the future."

Elizabeth Garcia, coordinator of career and technical education for the LHS school district, acknowledged the challenges of creating a class like this and said it took funding, time and the right teachers to make the course a success. However, she also said the benefits far outweigh the cost when students "are provided the chance to use their brains and hands at the same time and [can] see the relevance."

The students from last year's class proved they were more than capable of combining math and construction concepts. On the state standardized test, 100 percent of the ninth graders from the Geometry in Construction class scored in the proficient or advanced levels in geometry and measurement sections. This is compared to 52 percent of regular math students at the same school.

"This curriculum isn't watered down at all," said Burke.

But Moore knows it's one thing to teach math. It's entirely different thing to teach students to like math.

"I want to provide more relevance to math. This answers the question kids have, ‘Why are we learning this?' " Moore said. "It makes kids think much more positively about math and they start believing they can do things that they never thought they could do before."

Moore said that for him, this is what makes teaching worth the work.

Link said the course has changed how he thinks about math classes. "Math can be boring... but then I learned that it can actually apply to real life. It was cool having a class built around real life and real problems," he said.

Geometry in Construction is the opportunity for Moore to combine two life-long passions, math and construction. He has 27 years of experience teaching math, but has also built two houses and spends his summers with high school kids remodeling and rebuilding homes for elderly, handicapped or single-parent households through a non-profit program.

Melissa Moore, Tom's wife, said this class is a dream-come-true for her husband. "He wants to leave a lasting impression on the students," she said.

Moore is also excited for the new partnership the program is building with Interfaith Hospitality Network's Angel Village, a nonprofit organization that builds units for families in need of inexpensive, transitional housing. By selling the house to Angel Village for only the cost of supplies, the students are able to donate their time and labor.

"Really helping people gives this class double meaning," Moore said.

Moore and Burke are still coming up with innovative ideas. They hope to create a new algebra two course which will teach kids math by building an electric car. They are also CEOs of their new limited-liability company, Contextual Learning Concepts. They act as consultants and provide curriculum for other school districts expressing interest in implementing similar programs.

"Texas called, and they want us to come talk to them about the class," Moore said. He and Burke will present at a conference for superintendents of school districts across Texas.

The students in Geometry in Construction are building a house, but more importantly they are building relationships, self-esteem and a positive attitude towards education that Moore hopes will open doors in their future and change lives.

"All the work, everything, it's been worth it." Moore said. "Would I do it all again? Absolutely."

For more information, or to find out how you can become involved, visit www.geometryinconstruction.org.

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