Off the Clock: Professor Challenges Gifted High School Mathematics Students

Posted: October 23, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Catherine Ferraro

From a young age, Robert Sachs, professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences, knew he would always love mathematics.

In high school, he was well ahead of the traditional curriculum in his math classes, but did not have the option of taking advanced courses beyond calculus at his school. He spent the last two years of high school studying math independently.

As the percentage of high school graduates who completed precalculus or calculus has risen 22 percent since 1982, it is evident that more and more students are taking higher-level math courses. In fact, thousands of students who graduated last year in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., took several Advanced Placement tests.

Sachs has made it a priority to offer advanced courses to students who are fluent in the language of mathematics. For the past nine years, Sachs has been teaching two classes, one in the fall and one in the spring, at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County.

“To be able to offer advanced classes to high school students who are gifted in the area of mathematics is very personal to me because I was once in their positions,” says Sachs. “Understanding the meaning behind mathematics is crucial for students because they can use the problem-solving skills used in math classes to help them with real life experiences.”

Three days a week, Sachs travels to “TJ” in Alexandria, Va., to teach Complex Analysis. (In the spring he’ll teach Differential Equations.) To be enrolled in the class, students must first take AP Calculus and another year of advanced math.

About half of all graduating seniors at TJ take courses beyond AP calculus. The class that Sachs teaches is one of the three or four most advanced courses offered. Mason offers an equivalent of this class called Functions of a Complex Variable (MATH 411).

Although high school students do not receive college credit for Complex Analysis, 12 high schools in Fairfax County in addition to TJ teach two advanced mathematics classes (Multivariable Calculus and Matrix Algebra) for which students may receive college credit at Mason.

In partnership with Fairfax County Public Schools, a cohort of teachers from these local high schools took a sequence of courses with Sachs concerning the teaching of this mathematics. The teachers still meet once a month to discuss ways to enhance their teaching.

Sachs received a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics from Harvard University and a PhD from the Courant Institute at New York University. Some of the classes Sachs teaches at Mason include differential equations, calculus, advanced calculus and applied math.

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