Math is tripping up community college students. Some schools are trying something new

ALBANY, Ore. – It’s 7:15 on a Monday morning in May at Linn-Benton Community College in northwestern Oregon. Math professor Michael Lopez, a tape measure on his belt, paces in front of the 14 students in his “math for welders” class. “I’m your OSHA inspector,” he says. “Three-sixteenths of an inch difference, you’re in violation. You’re going to get a fine.”

He has just given them a project they might have to do on the job: figuring out the rung spacing on a steel ladder that attaches to a wall. Thousands of dollars are at stake in such builds, and they’re complicated: Some clients want the fewest possible rungs to save money; others want a specific distance between steps. To pass inspection, rungs must be evenly spaced to within one-sixteenth of an inch.

Math is a giant hurdle for most community college students pursuing welding and other career and technical degrees. About a dozen years ago, Linn-Benton’s administrators looked at their data and found that many students in career and technical education, or CTE, were getting most of the way toward a degree but were stopped by a math course, said the college’s president, Lisa Avery. That’s not unusual: Up to 60% of students entering community college are unprepared for college-level work, and the subject they most often need help with is math.

The college asked the math department to design courses tailored to those students, starting with its welding, culinary arts and criminal justice programs. The first of those, math for welders, rolled out in 2013.

More than a decade later, welding department instructors say math for welders has had a huge effect on student performance. Since 2017, 93% of students taking it have passed, and 83% have achieved all the course’s learning goals, including the ability to use arithmetic, geometry, algebra and trigonometry to solve welding problems, school data shows. Two years ago, Linn-Benton asked Lopez to design a similar course for its automotive technology program; the college began to offer that course last fall.

Math for welders changed student Zane Azmane’s view of what he could do. “I absolutely hated math in high school. It didn’t apply to anything I needed at the moment,” said Azmane, 20, who failed several semesters of math early in high school but got a B in the Linn-Benton course last year. “We actually learned equations I’m going to use, like setting ladder rungs.”

Linn-Benton’s aim is to change how students pursuing technical degrees learn math by making it directly applicable to their technical specialties.

Some researchers say these small-scale efforts to teach math in context could transform how it’s taught more broadly.

Among the strategies to help college students who struggle with math, giving them contextual curriculums seems to have "the strongest theoretical base and perhaps the strongest empirical support,” according to a 2011 paper by Dolores Perin, now professor emerita at Columbia University Teachers College. (The Hechinger Report is an independent unit of Teachers College.)

Perin’s paper echoed the results of a 2006 study of math in high school CTE involving almost 3,000 students. Students in the study who were taught math through an applied approach performed significantly better on two of three standardized tests than those taught math in a more traditional way. (The applied math students also performed better on the third test, though the results were not statistically significant.)

There haven’t been systematic studies of math in CTE at the college level, according to James Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education at the Southern Regional Education Board, who ran the 2006 study.

Oregon appears to be one of the few places where this approach is spreading, if slowly.

Three hours south of Linn-Benton, Doug Gardner, an instructor in the Rogue Community College math department, had long struggled with a persistent question from students: “Why do we need to know this?”

“It became my life’s work to have an answer to that question,” said Gardner, now the department chair.

Meanwhile, at the college, about a third of students taking Algebra I or a lower-level math course failed or withdrew. For many who stayed, the lack of math knowledge hurt their job prospects, preventing them from gaining necessary skills in fields like pipefitting.

So, in 2010, Gardner applied for and won a National Science Foundation grant to create two new applied algebra courses. Instead of abstract formulas, students would learn practical ones: how to calculate the volume of a wheelbarrow of gravel and the number of wheelbarrows needed to cover an area, or how much a beam of a certain size and type would bend under a certain load.

Since then, the pass rate in the applied algebra class has averaged 73%, while the rate for the traditional course has continued to hover around 59%, according to Gardner.

One day in May, math professor Kathleen Foster was teaching applied algebra in a sun-drenched classroom on Rogue’s campus. She launched into a lesson about the Pythagorean theorem and why it’s an essential tool for building home interiors and steel structures.

James Butler-Kyniston, 30, who is pursuing a degree as a machinist, said the exercises covered in Foster’s class are directly applicable to his future career. One exercise had students calculate how large a metal sheet you would need to manufacture a certain number of parts at a time. “Algebraic formulas apply to a lot of things, but since you don’t have any examples to tie them to, you end up thinking they’re useless,” he said.

In 2021, Oregon state legislators passed a law requiring all four-year colleges to accept an applied math community college course called Math in Society as satisfying the math requirement for a four-year degree. In that course, instead of studying theoretical algebra, students learn how to use probability and statistics to interpret the results in scientific papers and how political rules like apportionment and gerrymandering affect elections, said Kathy Smith, a math professor at Central Oregon Community College.

“If I had my way, this is how algebra would be taught to every student: the applied version,” Gardner said. “And then if a student says ‘This is great, but I want to go further,’ then you sign up for the theoretical version.”

But at individual schools, lack of money and time constrain the spread of applied math. Stone’s team works with high schools around the country to design contextual math courses for career and technical students. They tried to work with a few community colleges, but their CTE faculty, many of whom were part-timers on contract, didn’t have time to partner with their math departments to develop a new curriculum, a yearlong process, Stone said.

Linn-Benton was able to invest the time and money because its math department was big enough to take on the task, said Avery. Both Linn-Benton and Rogue may be outliers because they have math faculty with technical backgrounds: Lopez worked as a carpenter and sheriff’s deputy and served three tours as a machine gunner in Iraq, and Gardner was a construction contractor.

Back in Lopez’s class, students are done calculating where their ladder rungs should go and now must mark them on the wall.

As teams finish up, Lopez inspects their work. “That’s one-thirty-second shy. But I wouldn’t worry too much about it,” he tells one group. “OSHA’s not going to knock you down for that.”

Three teams pass, two fail – but this is the place to make mistakes, not out on the job, Lopez tells them.

“This stuff is hard,” said Keith Perkins, 40, who’s going for a welding degree and wants to get into the local pipe fitters union. “I hated math in school. Still hate it. But we use it every day.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Math is ruining community college careers. Some find workaround.