Stars In The Making

Hubble programmer Patricia Pelham gets a thrill from helping community college students put math problems light years behind.

May 27, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

This is the third in an occasional series of articles - timed to coincide with the graduation of the Class of 2002 - about extraordinary Maryland college instructors.

Patricia Pelham's two jobs are a mile apart on either side of Druid Hill Park, yet they might as well be in different worlds.

Which, in a way, they are.

In her day job, Pelham has one foot in outer space: As a configurations manager at the Space Telescope Science Institute, she works on the software that positions the Hubble Space Telescope to capture images of galaxies colliding 420 million light years away.

In her night job, Pelham has both feet planted firmly on planet Earth, with all its mundane frustrations. Twice a week, she drives 10 minutes to Baltimore City Community College, where she teaches eight hours a week of remedial algebra.

The teaching involves math that is child's play compared with the otherworldly computations required in the telescope work. The pay - about $9,000 a year - is a fraction of her Hubble salary. A double-faced chalkboard is the fanciest technology she uses in her teaching.

And yet she couldn't do without it.

"Teaching pumps me up, because it's so different than what I do during the day," says Pelham. "It pumps me up so much I can't go straight to bed when I come home from class."

What Pelham and her Hubble colleagues have accomplished with the telescope's new Advanced Camera for Surveys - looking into space almost to the start of the universe 13 billion years ago - is impressive. But being "pumped up," and not laid low, after a night of teaching remedial math is, in its own way, a logic-defying feat.

Consider the circumstances. Pelham teaches Math 82, intermediate algebra, a subject normally taught in high school, to adults of all ages who arrive at the community college woefully unprepared for college math.

Her students are among a minority that have gotten through the lower two levels of remedial math at the college, Math 80, arithmetic, and Math 81, elementary algebra. Still, many of them struggle with Math 82: On average, nearly two-thirds of Math 82 students either fail or drop out before semester's end.

Because students must pass Math 82 to take a required college-level math class, their math travails are a huge roadblock to graduation, as was highlighted in a recent report by the Abell Foundation. Of the 1,350 students who enrolled at the college in the fall of 1997, only 12 had graduated four years later.

Against this gloomy backdrop, Pelham has created a small galaxy of success. Now in her 10th year at the college, she consistently passes more than half of the students who stay in class through to the final exam, including students who failed repeatedly at other remedial levels and under other instructors.

"I had to take 80 twice, 81 twice, but 82 only once, and I got a B in it. Doesn't that say something?" said Verna Hickinson, 42, a nursing student who took Pelham's class last fall. "I tell everyone I know, `Take Miss Pelham, take Miss Pelham.'"

Model math teacher

If there is a Platonic ideal of the math teacher, it probably resembles Pat Pelham. With her no-nonsense manner, sturdy build and long ponytail, the 50-year-old looks like the math teacher of our collective nostalgia, the earnest instructor with just enough ungainliness to make her less intimidating.

In fact, if you sit in Pelham's 5 p.m. class with your eyes closed, you might imagine you were back in ninth grade algebra class, learning to graph linear inequalities and solve perfect square trinomials. There is the squeak of chalk as students put their answers to homework questions on the board; the mutters of students telling their neighbors that they're lost; the teacher's slightly corny quips that elicit grudging laughs.

But open your eyes, and you realize it's not ninth grade; it's a roomful of adults trying to make up for never having had Pat Pelham, or someone like her.

In the front row, there's Terrie Alexander, 39, a domestic violence counselor seeking a mental health degree who took Pelham's class last fall and was doing well until she "just went blank" during the final exam and failed.

In the back left corner, there's John Knight, a 35-year-old Liberian planning to transfer to the University of Maryland nursing school. He's doing well in the class, but is too shy to put his answers on the board and finds it hard taking five classes while working weekends at a rehabilitation center.

And in the back right corner, there's JoAnn Wilkes, 55, a school janitor who needs to pass Math 82 for the business degree she wants to help her start her own carry-out restaurant. She's already failed Math 82 three times (it took five tries to pass Math 80 and 81) and if she doesn't pass this time, it's over: the college allowed her a fourth try, which normally isn't allowed, but that's the limit.

It's daunting, but Wilkes believes she may make it, now that she's in Pelham's class.

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