Steve Bence

Nike, Inc.

Was there a math teacher, project or lesson that made a big impact on you while in school? What got you interested in math?

The biggest impact on me happened in an Abstract Algebra class in college (at the University of Oregon). I was probably a junior or senior at the time, about 20 years old. We were studying Galois theory and group theory which I enjoyed. For one class I was surprised when the young professor used most of the class to read us a story of Evariste Galois, the man behind the theory which we were studying. What stood out to me was the way that Galois died, in a duel. Galois thought that he would probably die in the upcoming duel and the story as I remember it was that he hurriedly wrote down his mathematical thinking with notes in the margins that he didn’t have time to provide proof. The story was fascinating to me, brought a human & historical dynamic to what we were studying, and when Galois died in the early 1800’s as a result of the duel he was my age at the time, 20 years old. From that day onward I realized that math didn’t just “happen”, there were inspirational people behind it.

What did you enjoy most about math while in school?

The two parts to math that I love the most is (1) the definitions & elegant logic underlying all of mathematics and (2) the structured problem solving required. I loved problems (homework or tests) which required creative thinking to understand the problem and then tap into what I knew.

Describe some of the ways in which you use math to do your job. Which math skills are most important to your job? Please give examples.

Of course math makes it easy for me to understand some of the basics of business which includes numbers such as financials, orders, and forecasts. I also find it easy to use basic tools such as Excel spreadsheets and other computer tools. However the biggest benefit I believe is in problem solving. I can define a problem and then take a very logical approach to solve it.

What could teachers have done to make math more enjoyable/useful for you while in school?

The answer to this question is also applicable to the next question. I’d like to see math handled as a coach would handle any sport. There are fundamentals which have to be drilled. In sports it might be dribbling, blocking, running, or catching. In math the fundamentals are arithmetic skills and learning fomulas. But don’t develop the skills for the sake of the skills. When you put them all together then it is possible to do more, such as win a game. In math there are practical “games” to be won or application of those skills. Teachers need to focus both on the hard work of developing skills so they become second nature and find challenging ways to apply those skills, which in today’s world could be in creating, say, internet applications to do something useful.

If you had the power, how would you change the way math is taught at school?

My son had no trouble with math and science. He went to Purdue and has a degree in mechanical engineering. However my oldest daughter struggled with math. With her I told her that she was developing a part of her brain that would be useful in the future. I wanted her to think and for algebra, in her case, to make sense. I told her that even though she may not use advanced math in her future, the basics were important and the exercise of that part of her brain would make her a more complete person. I think teachers can do that.

Anything else that you would like to share.

If someone from 150 years ago could leap forward in time to today, they’d be surprised with what math and science has delivered. Airplanes, cars, cell phones, internet, computers, television, and much more. However they’d be very comfortable in a math classroom. A teacher in the front of the class, students in desks, a writing board, text books, homework, and individual tests. Teachers need to get away from how they learned which hasn’t changed in centuries to a focus on results, how do students apply what they learned. Sports show that young people aren’t afraid to work hard if they can see how it will be applied. Galois shows that you don’t have to be 30 or 40 or 50 years old to apply math successfully.