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College of Education

Math class helps student discover their own hidden figures of history

The daughter of two educators, Teaching Fellow Claire Henke has always had a passion for learning. A recent project in her math history class introduced her to mathematical superhero, Gladys West. West is a pioneer in the development of the global positioning system (GPS) and is still sharing her love of math with students eager to listen. West’s calculations made her a pioneer in her industry, much like the women portrayed in the film, Hidden Figures.  When Henke was charged with sharing a female story from mathematical history, she could think of no better person to profile.

“My math history course teaches us how mathematical functions were created and why they are useful to us today,” Henke says. “We discussed history from the ancient Egyptians and Pythagorean’s Theorum to today. Our professor asked us to choose a current mathematician to profile who was historically unknown or underrepresented. I learned about Gladys West and her work with GPS in my marine biology class, so I knew I had to share about her!”

In biology, Henke learned how West created the computations that lead to modern GPS technology that helps people navigate the globe. Henke was able to combine her passions for science and math and introduce her classmates to a living legend. She simply found West’s daughter’s email address and reached out.

“Ms. West is in her nineties, so it was incredible to be able to speak with her about her career,” Henke says. “I shared with her daughter about my project, and she set up a video interview to record my questions. I asked her about her childhood and what led her to choose a career in math and what it was like living in a time when women in the field were rare. This virtual encounter helped me dig deep and speak to her about her real experiences.”

Henke wanted the interview to incorporate as much personal history as possible, because she knew what a gift it was to have this opportunity. She tried to keep her questions direct so that she would not overwhelm her guest. Henke was most surprised with the candidness West had about her experiences.

“She told me about meeting her husband,” Henke says. “That was surprising and really cool! She did not shy away from the hard times she experienced, but I could tell how much she wanted to help our country. There were times when she wanted to protest the injustices happening at the time, but she felt her best efforts to making change were assisting in our efforts in the space race.”

Henke sees first hand in local classrooms how important it is to bring real life into the classroom. She shares these living legends with her students to inspire them to keep trying when things get hard.

“I have students that get frustrated when they don’t get concepts immediately,” Henke says. “I try to tell them that we all have to start somewhere. Even mathematical heroes have to start at the basics before they can create something great! The students sometimes forget that real people came up with our math theories, so sharing the stories of someone alive today is very important. I want them to know these people are walking around and spending their time just like we are!”

Henke tries to help her students find their talents and persevere, even when lessons get hard. She hopes they open their mind to what they can become. In her College of Education cohort, her classmates do the same for her.

“As you transition to junior and senior year, you realize you have so many people willing to back you up,” Henke says. “They’ve always been there, but things become clearer during student teaching. We are able to share what methods work with each other and how our time in the classroom is going. Even though every child and school is different, the act of becoming a teacher is unifying.”

Henke says the most important thing she tries to do with her students is build relationships. She references Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in her teaching philosophy — where basic needs must be met before needs like creativity and self-actualization are possible.

“They have to ‘Maslow’ before they can bloom,” Henke says. “When I build positive relationships with my students, they are hooked. They want me to teach, and they are excited to learn.”

Henke will finish up her classes this fall and begin full-time student teaching in the spring. She plans on teaching sixth grade science after college.

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