Eric Schulz walks with the purpose of a busy man, almost skipping through the hallways of Walla Walla Community College as he heads for class with his iPad tucked under his arm and a smile on his face.
“I didn’t set out to be a teacher,” he says without missing a step. “I went to college to be an engineer, and I fell in love with teaching in grad school.”
In addition to being a respected member of the WWCC faculty, Schulz is, in the world of mathematics, hip. In 2008 he started working with Wolfram Research, coding algorithms to help solve word problems. Now, when you say, “Hey, Siri,” and ask your virtual assistant to find the square root of 64, your mobile device is likely linking with a Wolfram product to solve the problem and report back to you.
That coding experience, along with Schulz’s love for math, led him to co-author an online, interactive pre-calculus textbook that is used in colleges and universities across the nation. In addition to bringing the subject to life with the interactive graphics in his text, he uses his iPad from the center of the room as a virtual whiteboard, displaying his diagrams and solutions on a 6-foot smart screen up front. He also encourages his students to use the technology at their disposal.
“Computers have changed the way we do math,” he says. “When I took calculus in the late ’70s it was a very different world. Now, we need to make math relevant in the context of the world people are living in.”
Traditional pencil-and-paper math teachers cringe at the thought of a computer solving an algebraic formula, but that technology is well established and Schulz embraces it. Apps like PhotoMath can literally look at a formula and solve it. If that doesn’t work, websites like wolframalpha.com can figure out an answer to a mathematical quandary even if you can’t quite articulate it. You can simply ask your phone to solve a math problem by voice command.
“Computers don’t make us less of mathematicians,” Schulz says, but there are those who disagree. Many teachers believe using computers shortcuts the learning process and robs the student of the chance to really understand numbers and their relationships. However, even as far back as 1982, a National Science Foundation report recommended “less emphasis on paper/pencil execution” and more on application.
For Schulz, being numerically fluent is a huge advantage. For example, when his landscaping contractor came to him with plans for in-ground sprinklers, he was able to modify the plan to optimize the pump operation by recommending different combinations of coverage and patterns. With too much demand on a circuit, a pump wouldn’t be able to provide enough pressure. Too little demand and the pump would cycle on and off, placing additional wear and tear on that critical component.
Schulz makes his point succinctly: “When I’m faced with a problem, using math is not a barrier to finding a solution.”
Math touches each of us every day — at the fuel pumps, the grocery store, in our homes, at work and at school. You may be subdividing property, applying for a loan, halving or doubling a recipe or figuring out how much tax you owe. Conversely, lack of awareness of math and lack of math skills may be causing you to ignore significant issues in your life, such as personal budgeting, debt management and retirement planning.
“The more comfortable you are with math, the more opportunities you have to affect things in your life,” Schulz reminds us.
Schulz’s passion has always been for math and the logic behind it, which explains why he loves encoding interactive math problems as learning aids. For him, it is a way of thinking and a way of life; but he sees the pursuit of knowledge — in any form — as the real benefit he has gained, and he’s a proponent of lifelong learning and education.
“Learning affects the way you see the world, it affects the way we interact with people and what we find worthwhile,” he notes.
Schulz never planned to become a teacher, but even after 27 years with WWCC, he’s as passionate as ever. He never planned on being an author, and certainly never dreamed, way back in grad school at the University of Washington, that he would be at the forefront of a quiet revolution in the way algebra and calculus are taught. But he’s always followed his heart and his passion, which led him to this point.
Experience has formed within Schulz a core belief that learning is more important than getting a job. In fact, if you ever want to shake his everpresent affable demeanor, just try to justify a college education by earnings potential. Once he’s set you straight about cheapening education by equating it to job skills, with a simple smile and a nod he’ll say, “Working a job you love is a byproduct of being a well-educated person.”