Vassar Today

Do the Math

By Julia Van Develder
  1. Forty-nine percent of United States adults do not know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.
  2. United States consumers spend more on potato chips than the government devotes to energy R&D.
  3. The WorldEconomic Forumranks the United States 48th in quality of mathematics and science education.
  4. China’s Tsinghua and Peking Universities are the two largest suppliers of students who receive Ph.D.s—in the United States.

These are just a few of the hundred or so random facts presented in a report titled “Rising above the Gathering Storm Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5,” prepared by the National Academy of the Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine in 2010. 

While the numbers may be startling, the fact that our public education system in the United States is in trouble, especially with respect to science and math outcomes, is old news. But how do we reverse the brain drain and begin once again to produce scientists and engineers who will build the future?

“It isn’t going to get fixed overnight,” says mathematics professor Charles Steinhorn, “but the simple and bottom-line answer is: good teachers. We need really good teachers.” 

That’s the objective of the Vassar Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program—to increase the number of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) majors entering K-12 STEM education. Steinhorn and co-principal investigators Chris Bjork (education), Cindy Schwarz (physics), and Bill Straus (biology) won a five-year, $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program to fund the program at Vassar. The Noyce Scholars receive $20,000 a year in scholarship funds for their junior and senior years and in return commit to two years of teaching in a high-need district for each year of funding. 

“But,” says Steinhorn, “our goal isn’t just to attract students to teaching, but to help them succeed. The Noyce program has a significant mentoring component as well as post-graduation support for professional development. We want them to become leaders as well as teachers.” 

Students who are considering a career
in education can also apply for a Noyce summer internship and receive a stipend of up to $4,000 for any project of their choosing related to math or science education. 

Meet Vassar’s first two Noyce scholars, Sarah King ’13 and Daniel Sherwood ’13, and one of the Noyce interns, Moises Rivera ’13. 


Sarah King ’13

Psychology major Sarah King grew up in rural Vermont, was home-schooled through the eighth grade along with her three siblings, and then went to a public high school. “We were largely unschooled, which is one home-schooling methodology based on the idea that just by living a life that’s intelligent and thoughtful you can learn most of what you need to learn,” says King. They belonged to several home-schooling groups where they would sometimes focus on a particular topic. “We studied whatever the parents were interested in teaching or whatever the kids were interested in learning. We had a friend, for example, who was into the Titanic, so he did the Titanic for two or three months until he got over his obsession. If you think about it, you can push those subjects all over the place. You can write about the Titanic, and you can look at the dimensions of it and do some math stuff, and you can do some earth science. So that was the way we learned.”

She eventually asked her parents to allow her to attend high school because she was concerned she wasn’t “learning anything.” When she got to high school, she’d never written an essay, she’d rarely read anything but nonfiction, and she’d never taken a test.

What she values about her home school background and what she hopes to bring to the classroom when she is a teacher is the focus on the pleasure of learning. “I’m a very task-oriented person, so doing well at ‘the school thing’ is really important to me, and that took over really quickly once I got into high school—getting good grades and doing what I needed to do to get good grades, whether or not that was helping me learn. I’m glad that I didn’t have to grow up with that. Now, even if I’m obsessing about the less important part, at least I know that that’s not what’s really important and that there’s something else I’m supposed to be getting out of this.”  

Daniel Sherwood ’13

Daniel Sherwood went to a math and science magnet school—High Technology High School, in Lincroft, New Jersey—and, ironically, came out of that experience hating math and science. “By the time I got to Vassar, I was very much having a reaction against my high school experience,” he says. “I did not want to take math ever again.”

But once it wasn’t being forced upon him, he decided to give math a second chance. “I took geometry my second semester freshman year with Professor [John] McCleary, and I hate to say this because it sounds so corny, but it changed my life. The subject matter was very proof based, as most of the Vassar math classes are, so it was looking at things more as puzzles as opposed to the kind of applied math you would get at an engineering school. So I could just enjoy math for the pleasure of doing math.” 

Sherwood came to Vassar knowing that he wanted to be a teacher. He’d taught Sunday school at his Unitarian Universalist meeting throughout high school and worked as a camp counselor in the summer.

It isn’t all about the math for Sherwood, though. He’s a creative writing minor and considers one of his most transformative classes a yearlong course in verse. “Last semester, all of my classes informed each other. I was taking Logic, Real Analysis, Intro to Computer Science, and Verse Writing. In logic and computer science, you’re trying to be very clear and explicit and say things that can only be interpreted in one way, whereas in poetry sometimes you want ambiguity, and you have to think about how a line break affects the meaning of what you’re saying.”

Sherwood plans to do his student teaching at Poughkeepsie High School, which fits the “high-need” requirement of the Noyce program, and hopes to get a job there once he’s certified. 


Moises Rivera ’13

From South Los Angeles, Moises Rivera grew up in a low-income, black and Latino community where most of his peers had no expectation of pursuing a college education. He learned about Vassar through a program called College Match, designed to mentor low-income high school students through the application process. The program includes a two-week college excursion trip, bringing students to the East Coast to visit colleges, including Vassar. “I just fell in love with the campus,” says Rivera. “I stayed with a student in his dorm and really got a sense of what it’s like to be a student here.”

By the end of his sophomore year, he’d declared a major in Latin American and Latino/Latina studies, but he was interested in science and math as well.
Professor Steinhorn encouraged him to apply for a Noyce internship. “I did a lot of math and science tutoring in high school, and I really liked that. But could I actually be a teacher and teach a class with 30 students and keep their attention? Could I commit to that? So this was a great opportunity for me to figure that out.”  

Last summer, Rivera and two engineering students from the University of Southern California ran an Iridescent Learning summer engineering camp in Los Angeles. The program ran for four weeks, each week with a new set of kids and a different age group. The first week targeted 6- to 10-year-olds and the theme was “animals as engineering inspiration. “We looked for animals that inspired new engineering concepts and inventions and then taught the physics behind them,” says Rivera. “The most obvious example would be a bird
inspiring an airplane. First we talked about the bird and the physics of flying. And then we had activities where the kids made their own planes and then measured how changing the wing type or the body length affected flight duration. So kids were jotting down data and doing their own experiments. And these are 6- to 10-year-olds! It was really cool to see them in action.”

Back at Vassar, Rivera’s intending to declare math as part of a double major and is hoping to do another Noyce internship this summer, teaching math to high school students in a UCLA outreach program. He’s also applying for the Noyce Teaching Scholarship for his senior year and will get his teaching certification through Vassar’s Dean’s Program. 

From Steinhorn’s perspective, it doesn’t get any better than this.