Making math relevant

Award-winning teacher uses hands-on projects to motivate Bronx students
Rachel Nobel 1152
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In Uy’s geometry class, conversation is lively as students work together to complete project-based assignments.

Two seniors in Uy’s geometry class work to construct Apollonian gaskets, fractal patterns generated from triples of circles.
Miller Photography

Two seniors in Uy’s geometry class work to construct Apollonian gaskets, fractal patterns generated from triples of circles.

As a math teacher at International Community HS in the South Bronx, Aristides Julmarx Galdones Uy hears a frequent question from skeptical students: “When am I going to use this in the real world?”

Uy is determined to show them. A few years ago, to teach the concept of measuring angles — a fundamental lesson in geometry — he dispensed with traditional worksheets. Combing trade books and magazines rather than textbooks for lesson plans, he hit upon the idea of asking his students to design their own pipe systems using actual welding equipment. Using real plumbing and engineering workbooks to guide them, Uy’s students found themselves cutting and soldering pipes with blowtorches.

“Even a small miscalculation or a wrong measurement would lead to leaks,” recalls Uy, known universally to his colleagues and students as “Mr. Ari.” “It definitely got them excited.”

It is that ingenuity that earned Uy a 2014 Sloan Award for Excellence in Teaching Science and Mathematics.

Uy began his teaching career 13 years ago at a private religious school in his native country, the Philippines, where, he says, “school is very teacher-centered, and students are expected to sit, be quiet and listen.” When he arrived to teach in New York City 10 years ago, as part of an effort by the DOE to recruit teachers from abroad, he said, “I realized I had to cut down on the talking and set up opportunities for my students to do the work.”

He does this by tapping into real-life mathematical connections with hands-on projects, in which his students do everything from maneuver hypothetical satellites in space using online software to write letters to can-manufacturing companies to encourage them to alter the surface areas of their products.

“Projects that require curiosity and creativity are challenging in different ways,” says Uy. “It’s a way to capture even the most disinterested student to see that math can be relevant. And it provides an opportunity for them to experience definite success.”

Miller Photography

Math teacher Aristides Uy demonstrates how to use a compass to draw a circle.

At International Community HS, where most students are brand-new immigrants to the United States, it’s even more crucial for Uy to provide his students with opportunities to engage in mathematical conversation.

“It’s like if I were dropped in a school in China,” he says of his students’ experience. “Math has its own language, and getting them to speak up and express themselves is critical to learning it.”

Nadia De Leon, a teaching assistant who has worked with Uy for the eight years he has been at the school, says that Uy’s emphasis on vocabulary is helpful for students who are unfamiliar with the language.

“He does not start a lesson without going through the vocabulary that is going to be used,” says De Leon. “The way that he structures and differentiates lessons, especially for low-level and special education students, is very simple and easy to understand.”

Like many of his colleagues, Uy uses visuals, graphic organizers and other scaffolds to reach his English language learners. But he also resists the temptation to bombard his students with lengthy verbal explanations, instead turning the tables so that it’s students who have to do most of the talking.

During a recent class, his students were constructing Apollonian gaskets, fractal patterns generated from triples of circles that must be carefully measured.

“Why did that happen? What else is missing?” he asked a student. His questions are meant to stimulate rather than interrogate. When another student couldn’t answer a query about the radial measurement of her circle, he wordlessly handed her a ruler and, smiling, walked away.

His smooth, unruffled demeanor in the classroom also goes a long way toward easing frustration.

“Wait! It’s fine!” he said mildly to a student who had just thrown down her ruler in exasperation.

“I try my best to take a step back and let them figure it out,” says Uy, who has made it a habit to build independent work time for students into his lessons.

“The first two months, it’s a struggle for students to work independently for five minutes because they’re not used to it,” he says. “But it teaches them to be independent learners.”

Uy also prides himself on being able to explain even the most complicated mathematical concept in a variety of ways to help students understand.

“I like the way he explains things,” says a student named Djenebou. “He’s always there for you. He’s going to make sure you understand what you’re doing.”

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