Volunteer tutor sharpens young math skills
June 23, 2008
Michael Petrie is used to starting at the beginning of the chapters in his fifth-grade math book.
So when tutor Ed Burchenal skipped forward to the chapter review, Michael was a little confused.
"I thought we'd go right to the chapter review," Burchenal explained to his student. "I want to get you up to speed. I want to work on geometry and things you'll see in sixth-grade math."
With that, it was on to reviewing points, lines and planes for Michael during his weekly math tutoring session.
"These look pretty hard, but it's really easy," Burchenal told Michael, pointing to the different types of lines and planes.
"That's the good thing about math. We start simple and build on it."
During their time together, Michael learned about rays - a line that starts at a point and goes in one direction - and planes - something that's flat that can go on forever in all directions - and a little about applying math to the world around him.
"The world is not just a circle or a square. It's a circle with a square on it," Burchenal told him as the two worked together to combine the geometric shapes.
Every Tuesday afternoon, even during the summer, Burchenal volunteers a few hours to tutor students in math at the Youth Center. In fact, Burchenal enjoys his summer tutoring sessions the most because they don't come with the stress of school schedules.
"In the summer, we can work more on fundamentals because we don't have to worry about a test coming up or the homework that's due tomorrow," he said. "This is a time we can devote to math to make it fun and see improvement."
Burchenal, a systems engineer for Applied Data Trends who works on aviation mission equipment for the Program Executive Office for Aviation, began volunteering as a math tutor at the Youth Center about two years ago. Some of the students he works with have problems with math while others are looking for a little help to further advance in their math skills or to prepare for a college entrance exam.
"I get students for all kinds of reasons," Burchenal said. "Home school kids like Michael aren't so constrained by the school calendar so we can work on more specialized tutoring.
"I'm also working with a rising ninth-grader who has taken the SAT (SAT Reasoning Test or formerly Scholastic Aptitude Test) once and now wants to get prepped for next year's Honors Geometry class. I've got another student whose father wants him to get more comfortable with math, particularly the math on the SAT."
Burchenal enjoys working with the students at any math level. The volunteer work goes beyond math as Burchenal also enjoys being a role model for his students.
"The main reason I do this is because it makes a big difference for the student and for their parents," he said.
"I have volunteered as a tutor in the past in an Orlando (Fla.) center for at-risk students. It's very satisfying because you can see you are making a difference in their lives. I can help students who just need help with their homework, students who are working on advanced and honors assignments or students who need help so they can get a high score on their SAT or pass their high school graduation tests."
Burchenal knows there are some students who just don't like math. But he's found that such a dislike often stems from a lack of confidence and math skills.
"I find a lot of times, they've missed some fundamentals. Math is a subject where if you miss the fundamentals you have a hard time," he said. "And if a student struggles with math and gets behind in school, their motivation goes down and it becomes a self-fulfilling cycle."
Burchenal breaks that cycle by growing a student's confidence in math.
"If they can get the fundamentals, they can get any math," he said. "So, I like to work on the fundamentals to fill any gaps they've had in learning math. Once they see their improvement, they become motivated to do better in math."
Math is serious business, Burchenal said, because it can make a difference when it comes to getting accepted into a good college and obtaining college scholarship money.
"This can be huge for the students and it can be huge for the parents," he said. "Good math scores on the SAT help students get into the college they want."
It can also make a difference in the type of career a student pursues.
"Math is a fundamental subject for many disciplines they'll go into in college or work," Burchenal said. "Scientists and engineers use math. But because of technology we're seeing math used increasingly in other areas, too. Math is fundamental in many work disciplines."
Even for students who don't want to pursue a career that involves math skills, mastering math in middle and high school is important for their overall sense of accomplishment.
"It's part of their education," Burchenal said. "Even if they aren't interested in math, they can learn it and complete a task. It lets them know that they can take on a task and succeed even if they don't enjoy it. If they can conquer math, they know they can conquer other things in life that they might not enjoy."
While many students may not see how math can affect their futures, they do know what math success can mean in the classroom.
"He (Mr. Burchenal) got me ahead of my teacher in ninth-grade Algebra," said 14-year-old Ashley Dorsett, who is taking some tutoring classes this summer.
"I went into the ninth-grade knowing the basics. I had a better jump off point than the other students in my class."
Dorsett wants Burchenal to help her prepare for the challenges of taking two math classes - Geometry and Algebra II/Trigonometry - in 10th grade at Bob Jones High. Burchenal is also working this summer with Matthew Eady, 13, on Algebra I and SAT math.
"Not only will the tutoring this summer help me be confident, but it will help me know and understand a lot of the math all the way to the 12th chapter," Dorsett said. "The key to math is not just doing it, but understanding what you are doing and applying it."
Editor's note: Tutoring and homework assistance services are offered through Child and Youth Services to children of military, and DoD retirees, civilians and contractors with access to Redstone Arsenal. Children who want to participate in the program must be registered with Child and Youth Services, 876-3704. Children requesting tutoring assistance should call Janice Brazile at 876-5437.