Pam Morse

Pam Morse

What did the acorn say when it had grown up?

“Gee-I’m-A-Tree.”

Geometry. Get it?

If you didn’t, you soon will—and learn to enjoy math in the process—when you enroll in one of Pam Morse’s classes at Columbia Gorge Community College.

Morse appreciates the role of humor in approaching difficult subjects, and like it or not, math is a tough subject for a lot of people.

Just ask employers in our region: They can’t find people who know how to use a tape measure.

“It’s true,” Morse said, explaining how she often encounters students who have never used a ruler, or understand how to make a simple graph.

To change that, Morse said, math needs to be fun and have practical relevance. She still remembers Mrs. Finkenseiper, her fourth grade teacher in New Jersey (“Yep, I’m a Jersey girl – loud and obnoxious, crazy in the classroom,” Pam admits), who taught math by using money.

“I’ve had students who didn’t understand the difference between positive and negative numbers, but you start talking money, and they can relate to it,” Morse said. “Math is a hard subject for a lot of people. They’ve had a bad experience in high school, or they’ve been out of it so long they’re terrified. You’ve got to make it fun, and laughable.”

So … what’s a pirate’s favorite variable? “Arrgh.” (That’s “r,” a notation representing a numeric value.)

With assistance from CGCC facilities director Jacob Toda, a couple of months ago Morse placed a purple bulletin board at the Hood River Indian Creek Campus, posting interesting stuff about math (did you know Florence Nightingale, the Victorian-era “Lady with the Lamp” who founded the modern nursing profession, was a statistician?) and upcoming news, such as the start of Fall 2019 enrollment for Math 98.

That board also carries a weekly puzzle. For example, a farmer has a chicken, a fox, and a sack of chicken feed, and needs to get all of them across a river without the chicken eating the feed or the fox eating the chicken. The boat can only carry one at a time. How did the farmer do it? Winners receive coffee gift cards and college bookstore items.

Along with such brain-teasers, Morse posts the occupations that require math … and these days, just about every occupation requires some degree of math. The bulletin board only attracted a couple of readers the first week. After nine weeks, upwards of 40 or more people—students, staff, faculty and the public at large—visit the board regularly to see what she has posted.

Morse enjoys seeing the light come on when students make a connection and understand the underlying logic of a mathematical solution. “’How did I ever not know this’,” she said, quoting the sudden comprehension of many students, including an adult firefighter who sat in the front row, wide-eyed, eagerly recognizing the mathematical underpinnings of work he performed but never fully understood.

“You might not need to understand string theory, but you need some understanding of math to think outside the box,” Morse said. “Students need to know math facts automatically—they reach for their calculators to figure three times four. Calculators are nice, but you need to understand the fundamentals, so when you do use a calculator, it all makes sense, even for quadratic equations.”

In an earlier day, high school home economics and shop classes taught essential, everyday skills. But these have fallen by the wayside. Now, many people don’t know how to change the oil in their cars, balance their checkbook or boil a two-minute egg.

“I use sixth grade math in one class,” Pam said, demonstrating the basics of graphing and elementary geometry. “The important thing is to make it interesting and relevant.”

For example, in the Middle Ages people created perfect right angles for home construction using a length of rope with nine knots tied at precise intervals, establishing the proportions of a general right triangle (all right triangles have two legs that meet at a 90-degree angle). By holding the ropes taut, people could quickly determine whether the knots aligned properly to create a right angle. Today’s farmers and orchardists still know the principle (for the record, it’s the “Pythagorean Theorem”) because you can place a second, facing triangle against the first … and thus lay out a perfectly-formed orchard or garden plot.

Pam Morse chairs the college’s math department. She looks forward to helping other departments—from nursing and chemistry to electro-mechanical technology and programs in the college’s soon-to-be-constructed skill center—foster student success and college completion. Sometimes the connection with math is apparent for students, sometimes not, but it’s always important.

“I want to see it come alive, to see more math classes,” she explained, “So when you do use a calculator … Oh! It makes sense!”

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