Editor’s note: Making Math Add Up is a series on the difficulties students have learning math, and what methods some schools and teachers are using with success.
Joe Smitter liked geometry well enough in Thornapple Kellogg High School but never understood what good it would do him. Now he knows.
Standing on a shop floor holding a 3/8-inch-thick piece of steel, Smitter fed it into a precision press-brake machine that formed it to a 90-degree angle. That bent metal piece will become part of a generator for an industrial equipment company. If the angle is off by as little as 1 degree it could ruin the entire part – and become a costly mistake for Smitter’s employer.
So Smitter really gets the value of math. His job depends upon it.
“Geometry – that’s what these things are all about,” Smitter said, patting the machine. “When I got to this, I finally found a real-world application (for math), one you can learn in geometry class.”
Any student asking the age-old question about math — “Why do we need to learn this stuff anyway?” – need only talk to the employees of DeWys Manufacturing for an answer.
The Marne precision sheet metal fabrication company employs about 150 workers, from machine operators like Smitter to engineers who draw up the specifications for the parts the machines make. Both kinds of employees need math skills ranging from fractions and decimals to calculus, said company President Jon DeWys.
“If they don’t have that good foundation, they’re not going to survive,” DeWys said.
Fine Measurements Crucial to Products
DeWys knows the value of math from both the vocational and educational standpoints. He is co-partner of his family-founded business, along with C.T. Martin, and a member of the Kenowa Hills Board of Education. A Kenowa Hills High School graduate, he is the father of two KHHS grads and a daughter, Hannah, who still attends.
He also serves on a manufacturing advisory committee of The Right Place, a West Michigan economic development nonprofit, and is a member of Talent 2025, a coalition of CEOs working to strengthen the region’s workforce.
Having students be proficient in math by eighth grade is one of the educational goals of Talent 2025 and the Kent ISD superintendents’ association. DeWys sees the needfor better math skills at his company — especially when it comes to running $250,000 machines like Smitter works on.
“That’s where a lot of manufacturers are struggling, is finding people that have some of those basic skills,” DeWys said. “Companies like ourselves have to provide remedial education to get them from here to here.”
His firm provides that education through DeWys University. The program provides up to six weeks of instruction by trainers who teach the intricacies of machining, welding and other specialized jobs.
Most prospective or new employees take a short test to assess their math skills. It asks them to identify lengths on a tape measure, add and subtract fractions and decimals and convert them both ways. If a job applicant gets too many wrong he or she won’t be hired. New hires will take courses at DeWys University to sharpen their knowledge and skills.
Many have problems with these calculations and skills like using a protractor, said university Dean Laura Elsner. Such skills are crucial to routine tasks such as bending metal within acceptable tolerances, Elsner points out. Even being off by a tiny fraction of an inch can produce bad parts for office furniture, medical equipment and other industries the firm supplies.
“If it gets to the customers, then it’s your reputation,” DeWys said. “That one little math (error) can have a huge magnifying effect.”
More sophisticated math skills are required to ensure products and materials are safe, he adds. For instance, an engineering intern calculated how many anchor bolts would be needed to keep a 5,450-pound DeWys storage tower from tipping over if a forklift ran into it. DeWys called this “math on steroids.”
Students Learn by Doing
Too often students are not taught the practical applications of math, Elsner said. She talks frequently with students in DeWys programs for area high schools and as an advisor to the Kent Career Technical Center. More courses need to teach “the math that’s necessary in your everyday life,” not rote calculations students will never use again, she said.
“I hear that from a lot of these kids,” Elsner said. “They hate doing it. They don’t see the need for it.”
At KCTC, students see the need by working on fabricating machines and performing real-world projects, said Rick Mushing, a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) consultant for area school districts. Accurately measuring tolerances is a key skill taught to engineering, robotics and architecture students who design and create actual products, he said.
One student built a car-engine replica with about 130 pieces. Others designed an electric car and raced it around Berlin Raceway to measure how much energy its batteries expended. Architecture students built insulated walls to measure their thermal resistance.
“Now they’re recognizing how to use that math to solve something real,” Mushing said. “They recognize how it’s actually being used as opposed to just figuring out the problem. For a lot of students it starts to make more sense then.”
Math also becomes more appealing when students realize it’s necessary for things such as computer programming, Mushing added: “They want to accomplish something and they need the math to accomplish the task.”
‘I Don’t Need Math’ – Not
Back on the shop floor of DeWys Manufacturing, Kris Cousineau feeds a length of sheet metal into a press-brake machine. He’s making one of 15 bends in the piece, which will become part of a $20,000 materials disposal unit for a hospital operating room. He uses a T square and caliper to measure the metal and punches dimensions into a computer that controlsthe machine.
Cousineau said he never realized the importance of such fine measurements until he saw what a difference 1/1,000th of an inch can make in a product.
“I always told my parents, ‘You’re crazy, I don’t need math!’” the 1982 graduate of Grant High School said with a chuckle. “When you get in the work force, just to count to 10 is very important.”
Cousineau is a trainer for DeWys University and a 32-year veteran of precision sheet-metal work. He says he wishes he had known more about the value of math when he was in high school, to help prepare him for his career.
“I love the challenge of this,” he said. “It makes me feel good about something I accomplished: ‘I made that.’”
Jon DeWys hopes more schools will build real-world applications into their math courses, and that more graduates will consider a career with modern manufacturing companies like his.
“There’s huge opportunities for young people,” DeWys said. “Those are the people we’re trying to attract – the ones who are hungry to work.”