Building to Teach

Joe Youcha recognized a problem in our society when his daughter’s math teacher couldn’t think of an example of how to apply geometry in the real world.

“If someone didn’t know about how to measure the angles of a parallelogram, the [school] building would fall down,” said Youcha, who, after seeing the problem, decided to do something about it.

Interviewed for the KET series Dropping Back In, he described how he co-founded the Alexandria Seaport Foundation, which teaches kids fourth through eighth grade math skills by giving them hands-on experience. You can view the entire series online at droppingbackin.org.

“What we are trying to do is to reintroduce what we as a society know, but have forgotten,” said Youcha, “We have identified a whole set of skills that you can introduce, teach, and then measure the results in a shop setting.”

Apprentices work alongside adult mentors learning carpentry skills as well as mathematics, all while building boats.

“A lot of the geometry you learn at school is directly applicable to woodworking,” said Stephen Hernandez, one of the foundation’s directors. “When these kids step back and see what they’ve built, then I tell them what math they’ve used and making that connection for them is like their ‘aha moment.’”

The foundation doesn’t just teach mathematic skills by building boats, but also by getting students out on the water in the vessels they build. A volunteer of the Alexandria Seaport Foundation, Jay Creech, shows them how they can use math to get from one place to another.

“How long is it going to take me to get from here to there when the wind is blowing at this angle from these speeds?” Creech might ask one of the apprentices, “That’s an algebra formula.”

When they go out on rivers in the boats, the apprentices are educated on environmental concerns as well.

“Our intent is to take the kids out and reinforce their math lessons,” said Creech, “but also use them to reinforce environmental concerns and keeping the river healthy.”

One student, A.J. Bawazir, credits the program for his success even after high school.

“At the beginning I was terrible at math,” said Bawazir. Now he is enrolled in Northern Virginia Community College, and attributes his learning at the Seaport Foundation to acing his placement tests for his college math courses.

Humans have for centuries been using math to build up the world around them.

“Human beings have learned math by using their hands for an awfully long time,” said Youcha.  He hopes the Alexandria Seaport Foundation will continue this tradition, 5300 years later.

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