Teacher Profile: Jamie Back
A couple of months ago, we interviewed Jamie Back who is a Math Teacher in the greater Cincinnati area. She has a B.S. in Materials Engineering, with a certificate in International Engineering, from the University of Cincinnati. She also has an M. Ed. from Xavier University. She is also runs her own blog called Making in Math and contributes to a renowned education blog, Getting Smart.
In our conversation with her, Jamie shared more about introducing technology, such as 3D printing, in the classroom, planning lessons, and her visions for the future of education. Here are some highlights from our conversation with her:
Ankita: What got you interested in a career in teaching?
Jamie: I got my engineering degree. I was one of those kids who was told by her teacher to be an engineer, and I thought “okay!” I always liked to make things and create cool stuff, so I became an engineer. During my college years I co-oped and interned at various companies, but no matter what I did, I found myself teaching or mentoring other people - and I really enjoyed that.
After graduation, I got a job working in IT but eventually there came a time when I felt there was something missing in my life. I realized that I wanted to teach! I decided to teach math because I left like it is a language in and of itself, and that through math I could bring together a lot of different disciplines! That was about 15 years ago, and since then I have been teaching!
Ankita: So glad to see that you found your calling and built your career in it! At Acorn, we really look up to teachers because we believe that they have a critical role in the development of students and preparing them for their future.
Also, I really like what you think about the foundations of math and how it links to everything in life! Regarding teaching math, I wanted to ask more about how you incorporate technology such as 3D printing, something very tangible, with a subject like math, which can be incredibly abstract and difficult for students to grasp?
Jamie: The key is taking a subject that is difficult to grasp and turning it into something tangible. I always look at something and ask myself what I can do to make this topic more understandable.
For example, one of the first projects I introduced to my class was related to scaling volumes. I asked my students to design basic shapes and then ask them to change some dimensions to see how the volume varies. This hands-on and visual learning experience was very engaging and helpful to the students. Later, we also studied cross-sections of 3D shapes and calculating their areas. Working with a design software again made this process a lot more fun.
For one of my pre-calculus classes, my students used Mathematica to design vases by using sine and cosine curves. They were able to be creative while learning trigonometry and seeing how different parameters affected the shape. Next year I am going to try to get them to estimate the volume of their shapes which would introduce more calculus to the process but would get them use the software to confirm their calculations.
Even though vases are simple things, they are tangible and that wows the students! The integration of art with math engages all the students - students who love math, students who love art, AND students who feel iffy about both. My schools actually put these vases in of art exhibits and got many more students interested in what you can do with math.
Michelle: I love how you are talking about the integration of art and math because that's something Acorn believes in as well. My next question is, how do you choose concepts and techniques for explaining lessons to students? Could you share your thoughts on 'student centered education'?
Jamie: So student centered education isn't something specific to me, it is a buzz word in the field of education right now. I really think it is more about taking traditional lessons, which are more teacher-centered, and really bring to student in the center so that you are inspiring the student to learn!
But that is not easy to do! It not easy to do because there is so much content that the teachers need to cover in one year that we really have to decide what should be covered traditionally and what can be taught differently.
And how do I decide - oh gosh! Each year I try to do something differently. Sometimes I am inspired by new or something I saw online. In fact, the vases were found by my students online. They wanted to 3D print them, but then I was like "let's just make them ourselves too!"
The great thing about introducing new, creative lesson plans is that I am also learning, experimenting, and seeing how things go, which makes the students feel more comfortable. Sometimes they come and ask if they are doing something correctly, and I respond saying "I don't know! Let’s figure it out together!" So, we all take the journey together!
Actually this year, for my geometry classes, I made a lesson plan inspired by a book called Built. This book is about structural engineering and so I came up with a lesson that would test the strength of 3D printed objects that the students would design themselves. However, everything the students built was too strong for us to run tests on and compare differences in strengths. Since the lesson didn’t go as planned, I said I'd figure out the process and improve the lesson for next year. To this, the students shared a lot of good ideas on what we could do differently and how the project could be changed. Although the lesson didn't go as planned, they were very engaged in the topics covered and excited to help me!
Ankita: That's a very important point you bring up which is that students learn better when they feel comfortable in the classroom to "figure things out" and when the teachers is figuring things out too, it definitely helps with that.
Your lessons do sound like a lot of fun, and we love how you were able to integrate technology in the classroom and get students engaged. When you were introducing this new learning style, how did the school and students react, and what were some of the challenges?
Jamie: My school was very supportive! All the other teacher were also intrigued by the lessons and often offered to help facilitate teaching and help brainstorm ideas for new lesson plans.
The biggest challenge was time! Projects, like the one of making vases, usually takes 2-3 days. Other more elaborate engineering projects can take up to 2-3 weeks. Making time for this, especially given the learning targets we need to meet in the year, is difficult. But I think that the cycle of trying, failing, trying again - basically the engineering design process - makes the time spend on these projects worth it. I try to implement at least one engineering project per year.
Other than time, I also think that finding space for hosting project-based classes can be difficult for some teachers. You not only need space for the technology, printers, and other supplies, you also need space to for all the students to move around, be creative, and, most importantly, be safe!
Michelle: It has been wonderful learning about everything you have accomplished in your classrooms. We have one last question which is: what do you envision for the future of education?
Jamie: Teaching is a journey! It is a journey for everyone involved. For me teaching is fun when I am learning along with the students. It is nice when neither of us are complacent! So for the future of education, I hope it moves in this direction where the students are engaged, working hands-on, and thinking outside the box.
I think that in subjects like Math there are some concepts you just have to understand and think using technology and creative learning techniques help students not only understand but also remember those concepts better!
I also believe that students should have choices for what they want their learning experience to look like. Perhaps, students could choose some topics to delve deeper into through their projects!
Finally, I really would like to integrate math with other disciplines like history or English. If you think about it, the role of engineers involves working in interdisciplinary teams and interfacing with people belonging to other disciplines. The same goes for artists, doctors, lawyers, and others! No matter what career you choose, you have to work with people outside your discipline so you should be able to bridge the gaps. Hence, I would really like to get my students to present and explain concepts to their peers who might not have a strong background math or the same subject. The more students are able to work on interdisciplinary teams and projects, the more it will help them in the future!
Ankita: That's an incredible vision! If you think about it, all disciplines - engineering, finance, medicine, etc. - are interconnected, not just on a interpersonal level, but also on a system level. Their interaction is crucial for solving some of the most pressing issues we face today! I think that the rise of prototyping and project-based learning is getting students to think about this from a young age. The work that you and other teachers are doing in changing the style of teaching and experience of learning directly links to the betterment of students, their career, and the work they will do in the future!
Thank you for everything and also for speaking with us today!
We would like to thank Jamie again for speaking with us and sharing her work! Do check out her blog for lesson plans and other resources related to STEAM learning.