Making math add up to excitement

Engineer turned to teaching to share what she loves

By Sarah E. Reynolds | Oct 02, 2013
Photo by: Sarah E. Reynolds Elsie Mason teaches middle school math at Lincolnville Central School. She uses her background in engineering to show students practical applications of the subject.

Lincolnville — Elsie Mason hopes to have the same influence on her students that a high school math teacher had on her.

Mason, who currently lives in Owls Head, is the new middle school math teacher at Lincolnville Central School. She plans to move to an apartment in Camden soon, she said. She student-taught at Hampden Academy last year, then completed a six-week assignment as a long-term substitute for the teacher who had been supervising her. Mason graduated from the University of Maine at Orono in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and received a master’s degree in education from the school in 2013.

It was one of her high school math teachers who encouraged her to look into working in the pulp and paper industry, she said. She attended a week-long program put on by the University of Maine Pulp and Paper Foundation to introduce high school students to careers in the industry and related fields. She applied for, and got, a scholarship from the foundation all four years of her undergraduate degree. In addition, she received the University Top Scholar Award, which provided tuition assistance, all four years.

A funny thing happened along the way, though. Mason said she enjoyed her mechanical engineering studies, but “I missed a connection with people.” She started tutoring another student in calculus and found that was the missing connection: she wanted to share the subject she loved with others.

The discovery led her to stay in school for a fifth year to earn her master’s in education so she could teach.

At Hampden Academy, she taught high school calculus. But when her term as a substitute was up, there was no permanent position for her. She said while her middle school students are not ready for the advanced concepts of calculus, she enjoys engaging with them and showing them math has practical applications for their lives. For instance, one of her students was working on a carpentry project, and she showed him how formulas could be used to figure area for it.

Also, many of her students want to learn how to create websites for online businesses: the problem-solving skills acquired in pre-algebra and algebra will help them with programming, according to Mason. The brain is a muscle that needs to be worked out, just like arms and legs, she said.

Mason said she uses humor to connect with students, and also brings examples from engineering and daily life into her teaching to show the relevance of what they’re studying. Her seventh-grade students are studying unit conversions, which are used in engineering, and also in grocery shopping. Whether you want to know much weight a bridge can hold or how much per pound you are paying for hamburger, unit conversions are important, she noted.

She said she and one of the language arts teachers hope to do a bridge-building unit this year that will incorporate students from the Gifted and Talented program, along with students who may not be in the gifted program but have a talent for making things.

And in the spring, she’d like to take her students on a field trip to her parents’ lobster wharf, Ship to Shore, in Owls Head, so they can see how math is applied in the business.

Mason was one of just eight women in her engineering program at Orono, she said. Asked if she is a role-model for the girls in her classes, she said, “I hope so.” She added career opportunities for women in math and science fields are on the increase.

While she ultimately put her education to use in the traditionally female-dominated field of teaching, she said, “You have to find something that you love.”

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Sarah Reynolds
Sarah E. Reynolds is copy editor for the Courier Gazette and Camden Herald.
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Sarah E. Reynolds has been a reporter and writer for more than 20 years, winning awards from the Maine Press Association and other professional organizations. She loves to read, ride her ATV and play word games.

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