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Teaching by the numbers: 'A level of mathematics they’re not used to seeing'

Brian Shay: "For me, it’s the ability for the students to see connections to the bigger world outside of their realm."


Brian Shay is a UC San Diego Extension instructor of Linear Algebra, one of the newly approved lower-division transfer credit courses offered by Extension’s K-12 College Exploration programs to high-achieving high school students.

Transfer credit courses are equivalent to regular UC San Diego undergraduate courses and are transferable for units and subject credit toward bachelor’s degrees at all UC campuses.

Shay is not only well-versed in the fundamentals of mathematics – but also in highly complex concepts that go way above and beyond.

For example, consider this course description for Linear Algebra, which started Jan. 21 at Westview High School: “Matrix algebra, Gaussian elimination, determinants, Linear and affine subspaces, bases of Euclidean spaces. Eigenvalues and eigenvectors, quadratic forms, orthogonal matrices, diagonalization of symmetric matrices.”

For Shay, such concepts are both decipherable and explainable. A math graduate of UC Davis, Shay also earned a math master’s from SUNY Potsdam in New York State.

In his Extension role, he teaches advanced math for students at five area high schools -- Westview, Poway, Rancho Bernardo, Mt. Carmel, and Del Norte. What’s more, he’s an adjunct instructor in statistics, calculus and algebra at San Diego Mesa College.

As if that wasn’t enough, Shay also teaches math at Canyon Crest Academy, a public high school in Carmel Valley . On the side, as he proudly reveals below, he’s also an egghead.

1) What’s the most fulfilling thing about teaching math to young people?
For me, it’s the ability for the students to see connections to the bigger world outside of their realm. I like how math takes people to uncomfortable places. A lot of people get anxious about math and I love trying to dispel that. I love making math fun and enjoyable.

2) What caliber of student do you teach in your high school math classes?
These are really intelligent and highly motivated young men and women who will go on to be stellar citizens, scholars, leaders of industry, doctors, lawyers, inventors, and business leaders. We expose them to a level of mathematics that they are not used to seeing.

3) How do you run your classes?
I treat them like the college students that they’re going to be. I give them structure, along with freedom, giving them a taste of what it’s like to be in college while they’re still in high school. They have a little more freedom to make mistakes, to learn about themselves and their boundaries and not have those mistakes necessarily affect their GPA.

4) What is the most prevalent trait among these students for predicting future success?
Two words: teamwork and perseverance. The most successful ones don’t believe in giving up. They keep trying different strategies. When they do hit a bit of a hiccup, they have no problem reaching out, asking me questions, trying to find the answers. When I present something that’s an intellectual leap, they’re very comfortable asking me to explain things. Their questions often lead to thoughtful, productive discussions.

5) I noticed that one of your community college students referred to you as a “math dork.” Are you?
Apparently so, because I do love math and teaching math to young people. I know the subject matter really, really well -- and I’m confident that I can help them become better math students.

6) What are some typical concepts that you teach?
I teach students how to use triple integrals to help calculate the volume of some weird shape. I know how to liken that concept back to the geometry they learned back in the 9th grade. They learn about inter-connections and geometric formulas that they never saw before. And that blows their mind.

7) Do you occasionally get students who, in your judgment, are even more astute in math than you are?
I would say that many of my students are smarter than I am. I just happened to learn these concepts before they did.

8) How would you compare your own math knowledge in high school with the best and the brightest of today’s youngsters?
When I was in high school, I was taking advanced placement calculus. I wasn’t in the class that comes two levels above that. I’m showing them concepts that I first learned when I was a freshman in college and after. The difference is, they catch on faster.

 9) Away from math class, what do you do for fun and excitement?
Well, my hobbies are definitely odd, especially for someone who teaches math.

 10) Such as?
I’m a chicken farmer with 60-plus chickens that I raise for their eggs. I live in Oak Park, which is not far from North Park. I have a small organic farm in my backyard. I grow sustainable organic vegetables and sell them at a local stand on weekends. I try to get people to eat healthy, and I like to keep things local, healthy and sustainable.
Posted: 1/26/2015 12:00:00 AM by UC San Diego Extension | with 0 comments

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