By Bill Murphy
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VOLUNTEER EXTRAORDINAIRE -- Sandia physicist and crystal grower John Reno (1123) takes his love for mathematics into the classroom at Hoover Middle School, where he teaches a once-a-week after-school math program.
Yet 20 students, rarely absent and generally polite, come each week. And the school's standing in February's opening round of a national competition called MathCounts, run by the National Society of Professional Engineers, rose from ninth out of 20 the previous year to fifth in this, John's first year of teaching. The entry group, composed of an individual and a team of four of John's students, will compete in late March for the first time at the state level.
One reason for John's success may be that he understands classroom dynamics.
Before his first meeting, he made sure he would not stumble at the blackboard. He did this by working through at home almost three hundred math problems provided for study by the MathCounts Foundation. In this way, he maintained the respect of his brightest students, who otherwise could have been supercilious towards a teacher they perceived as less intelligent than they are.
Second, he never discounts a creative solution suggested by a student for a problem until he and his class have worked through it. The chilling phrase from teachers with insufficient math background -- "That's not the way the book does it" -- is absent from his lexicon.
Third, he never hesitates to say an off-the-wall solution is wrong if it proves to be so.
So he maintains respect, encourages creativity, and avoids the role of cheerleader-without-standards.
The bearded, casually dressed Sandian, aided by volunteer assistant Meredith Ward (a high school junior from Eldorado High) occasionally provides brownies, cookies, chips, and other snacks. "That's how you get students to come," he says.
What he offers his students are problem-solving techniques: how to eliminate what's not important, and how to find patterns. "When they succeed, you see it in their faces," he says. "It warms the heart."
That a physicist with a doctoral degree takes time to work out junior-high-level math problems in advance may seem strange. But the problems are of a higher order than those ordinarily encountered in Albuquerque junior highs and can be troublesome. (Samples: for what value of x does three to the 14th power equal 1/9 to the x power? And, suppose p/q = 3. What is the value of 2p/(p-q)?)
John's job growing crystals at Sandia includes formidable challenges, but confines his human interactions to laboratory associates while leaving his bent for teaching untapped. He already had spent several years teaching high school while on the path to achieving his doctorate.
When his two children, Matthew and Beth, both at Hoover, told him of the opening to lead the math club, he applied and was selected for the unpaid job.
For the state championships, he's preparing his team to do "mental math" -- solve problems in their heads, with neither calculator nor paper. "How many people still do that, even at Sandia?" he asks. "It's a dying art." But challenges, he says, make teaching interesting.
Last modified: March 26, 2000
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