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UA professor uses experience for exploration

RANDY METCALF/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Mathematics education assistant professor Robin Ward has changed her profession from an aerospace engineer for NASA to teaching at the UA.
By Natasha Bhuyan
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Monday, February 16, 2004
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Those who can't do, teach.

But what about those who can do?

Robin Ward worked for seven years as an aerospace engineer for NASA, General Electric Company and the Software Engineering Institute. But she said she grew tired of the "rat race" and made the life-altering decision to leave her job and pursue a doctorate in mathematics education.

As a mathematics education assistant professor at the UA, Ward uses her untraditional background and unique experiences to benefit her students.

"I think the best way to learn mathematics is to embrace the notion of learning by doing," she said.

While doing her undergraduate studies at Immaculata University, she excelled academically in every subject, but had trouble choosing a specific field. She eventually settled on a Bachelor of Arts in math and physics and later worked for GE as an aerospace engineer. While working for GE, Ward received a Master of Arts in mathematics at Villanova University, and ended up as a systems programmer for SEI.

After Ward realized she wasn't satisfied with her job, she wanted to go back to the classroom.

There are college professors. Then there is Dr. Ward, who goes the extra mile.

- Nicole Talamantes, elementary education senior


"I would tutor high school students, and I was so thrilled when that lightbulb would just click on," she said. "Then I thought, wouldn't it be amazing if I could witness 50 lightbulbs turning on?"

Ward shows her students how to be math teachers by utilizing her own experiences.

When Ward was an assistant professor at California Polytechnic State University, she was asked by a colleague to create a Web site for NASA. The site, for NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, contains a mixture of K-12 math lesson plans and describes the mathematics used by scientists at NASA.

Nicole Talamantes, an elementary education senior, finds Ward's NASA Dryden Flight Research Center Web site especially useful.

"She always provides useful resources for us to access and use post-semester while we are student teaching," Talamantes said. "There are college professors. Then there is Dr. Ward, who goes the extra mile."

J. Robert Hendricks, associate dean for the College of Education, said Ward's distinctive classroom approach leaves a lasting impression on students.

"Her teaching style is very hands-on and interactive, and her students are able to apply the methods that she models effectively," he said.

Ward takes her students on geometry walks to locate polygons and tessellations in nature. Students are encouraged to explore math through the use of tools like Base 10 Blocks and color tiles to identify real-life applications. Students are also asked to integrate children's literature into math.

Ward said she uses such investigative methods to create a thought-provoking classroom environment.

"I am blessed to have so much engineering and industry experience in my background," she said. "I have a plethora of ideas to draw from to make the real-life connections for students."

Margaret Johnson, a graduate student in the College of Education, is involved in the Teach for Tucson program, which puts graduate students in real classrooms. She employs techniques she learned from Ward to help her work with her own fourth-graders.

"I took my fourth-graders on a geometry field trip, and they loved being 'math detectives,'" Johnson said. "Thanks to Dr. Ward, they see math can be exciting."

Ward is married to Chris Del Conte, a senior assistant athletic director at the UA. She is also the mother of two young children, 1-year-old Sophia and 2-year-old Sienna. Although time management is a challenge, Ward said her secret is staying organized and focused.

Constantinos Manoli, a doctoral student in teacher education with an emphasis in environmental learning, said he is puzzled by how Ward devotes her energy to her active schedule but always finds time for others.

"I work next door to her, and she brings me cake and sweets when she thinks I'm feeling overwhelmed," he said. "She is not like any other person I know."

Annette Landry, a graduate student in teacher education, said Ward is the woman she most admires, as she maintains an awe-inspiring workload but always finds time to explore the world.

Despite the impressive resumÄ and demanding workload, Ward remains modest about her accomplishments.

"I'm happy with my past, but I still intend to forge new relations and continue to better myself as an educator."

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