You have seven pieces of rope that each measure 25 feet. How many feet of rope do you have?
You have seven quarters in your pocket. How much money do you have?
If you have trouble answering the first question, don’t worry: You are not alone according to math professor Christopher Thomas.
The two questions represent the basis of the problem most people have with mathematics, according to Thomas. The solution to this problem is what he focuses on.
Some mathematicians spend lifetimes working on complex formulas. The films “A Beautiful Mind” and “Pi” showed brilliant mathematicians struggling to solve huge formulas.
Thomas is trying to solve a different type of theorem. He is dedicated to teaching people how to understand math, and he has found that at MCLA he can do just that. His love for math is in teaching others its simplicity.
“Postdoctorate work convinced me that I wasn’t cut out for pure research and that I really wanted to teach and have more exposure to students,” Thomas said, refering to his work at Texas A&M, where he earned his PhD.
“I was teaching one course a semester and it really wasn’t enough,” he added.
Thomas earned his undergraduate degree at UMass Amherst, then left the area to earn his master’s at Tufts University, then his doctorate at A&M. He left Texas, returned to the area his family calls home and started teaching at MCLA during the Fall 2004 semester.
Thomas teaches calculus, linear algebra, history of math, geometry and several other math classes at the College. He also pursues something that has become a passion for him
“Lately I have been putting a special focus on developing courses for future elementary school teachers,” Thomas said. He is currently writing a textbook and planning a curriculum in order to educate the educators.
“There are elementary school teachers out there that really don’t know math, or they can kind of do it but they really can’t explain why it works,” he said.
The Department of Education believes a mastery of mathematics is essential for every student, according to its Web site. Part of the department’s goal in achieving what it calls STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, is ensuring that future teachers are better prepared to teach the curriculum.
“MCLA lept ahead of the curve because a year and a half ago, the College made it required for all elementary education majors to take a three-course series: I think none of the other colleges have required it,” Thomas said.
“I am trying very hard to do things in the class that the students can turn around and do in their own [future] classrooms again,” Thomas said.
“Unfortunately today, our primary and secondary schools continue to trail many of our competitors, especially in the key area of math and science,” President Obama said during his 2009 visit to Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, New York.
The President often cites mathematics as an essential element needed to build a strong, competitive workforce.
Although Thomas expresses disappointment that many politicians see math only as it is applied to job skills, and that the No Child Left Behind act “teaches for the test,” he is enthusiastic about the recent spotlight given to math, and the fact that elementary educators are now held to a standard.
“They made this teacher’s test that’s coming up now, and you really need to know math to pass it,” Thomas said, referring to the Massachusetts Test for Educator Licensure (MTEL).
“I have been working on the three-course series, teaching it for the fourth time and am still tweaking it,” Thomas said.
He plans to go on sabbatical next spring to finish his textbook.” I want it to be simple but throw in a lot of teaching ideas. There are so many projects I want to take on.”