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Innerviews: Dow engineer takes calculus to grade-schoolers

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Calculus? Groan.

Probably the most intimidating of all school subjects, the word sends shivers of dread down the spine of even the smartest students.

George Phillips, senior global technology manager for Dow, wants to change that. The 49-year-old chemical engineer recently taught an after-hours calculus course to fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at Mountaineer Montessori School.

Lo and behold, they actually liked the stuff! They excelled, he said, because he told them they could. He gave them confidence.

Confidence changed his life. Labeled a slow learner in grade school, he particularly struggled with math. Then, when a test in the sixth grade revealed he had the IQ of a genius, he started acting like one.

He sailed through advanced math and science, fell in love with physics and chemistry and built a stellar academic and professional career rooted in that first uplifting morsel of self-confidence.

Using a can-do mantra to motivate his Montessori students, he simplified calculus concepts and explained how they apply to everyday living.

A kid who can't grasp calculus hasn't met George Phillips.

 

"I spent my elementary and junior high years in Middletown, Md. My father was a math teacher at the local high school.

"I did very poorly in math in elementary school. I remember sitting in the kitchen with my brother trying to learn long division when I was in the fourth and fifth grade.

"I had a space in the basement where I spent weekends building models, and I had a chemistry set. My dad said he would never keep pens around the house because I would always tear them apart to get the springs out. He used to take me to junk shops and buy me old TV sets and radios so I would tear them apart instead of our good appliances.

"I didn't talk a lot. Mother said everyone thought I was a slow learner. I had behavior problems. When I was 11, I vandalized the school.

"In sixth grade, mom got a call from the school. She expected it to be trouble. They had given me a test and I had scored at genius level. That's when I remember things changing. I started getting put in advanced classes, advanced math, and I started liking school and math.

"When I started algebra, it was like solving a puzzle and it was fun. All through junior high and high school, I did very well in math and science.

"When they said I had a high IQ, I started to think I was smart and I could do this. It's self-fulfilling. If you think you aren't good in math, you won't be good in math.

 "We moved to West Virginia in '77 and my parents bought a motel and campground in Pocahontas County. We put in a restaurant the second year. I was always working with my dad, building and maintaining things. I spent one summer basically building the sewage treatment plant. I was 13. That's what got me interested in engineering. I took drafting in high school and that did it.

"My chemistry teacher, Harold Crist, was the one who inspired me the most. I just saw him last weekend. He had a good sense of humor and made the class fun.

"I wanted to be a chemist, but they didn't make a lot of money. Chemical engineering sounded like fun, so that was my pick. It was hands-on building things.

"When I was a sophomore at WVU, I called home and said I'd had enough. I couldn't do it and wanted to quit and come back and run the business. My dad said, 'I never thought you were smart enough to be an engineer anyway.' That turned me around.

"It made me so mad, I got my bachelor's with a 3.5 average and stayed for my master's and got a 3.6. He knew that whatever he said, I was going to rebel against. He insulted me, so I decided I would show him.

"There were two classes that I heard were very hard. One was the first year of calculus and the second was organic chemistry. At mid-term, I had D's, so I dropped both classes. I still went to class and took the tests, but I didn't get credit. I retook them second semester and got B's. I took classes harder than those and got A's. That told me that if you go into something thinking it's hard, it will be hard because you already believe that. If you go in with an open mind, the best outcome will happen.

"Because I had dropped those two classes, it took me five years to get my bachelor's. My senior year, I did undergraduate research in the chemical engineering department on extracting valuable products out of coal. The professor asked if I wanted to stay and get my master's. Tuition would be free and I would have a paid position to teach. So I stayed. I came out knowing a lot more about engineering than I did when I finished my bachelor's. I finished in '88.

"Carbide hired me at the Tech Center as a processing engineer, designing chemical plants and doing projects to replace equipment or build new plants.

"Early on, I got handed a project to develop a new technology and it actually worked, so we ended up building a plant in Texas and I got to lead a large project. After that, Carbide was building a plant in Malaysia. They asked me to be an engineer on that, so I went to Malaysia for three years. My daughter was born in Thailand.

"Malaysia was neat. Dow has given me an opportunity to travel a lot. I go to China. I've been to Europe and Asia. We have clients in South Africa, so I imagine I will be going there.

"Dow bought Carbide while I was in Malaysia. They asked me to come be a manager, so I went to Texas for two years then came back to the Tech Center.

"Now I am senior global technology manager. We give companies our engineering designs and teach them how to run the plant, and they pay us $10 to $20 million for the rights to practice our patents.

"My daughter was here at the Montessori School. She will be in sixth grade. Two years ago, we found this book, 'Calculus Without Tears.' It's meant to teach fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders calculus. We did it for three or four months.

"I thought I would let the other classmates have the opportunity. I offered to teach a class after school. I had 13 students. We finished in May, the whole book. The guy who designed this program is a Ph.D. who works at NASA at the jet propulsion lab in San Diego. His name is Will Flannery. Guess where he's from? Logan County.

"His whole premise is that we teach math wrong. We teach algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and everybody thinks they are never going to use it. His idea is that the real neat math is calculus. That's real world, Isaac Newton and motion and physics. In calculus, you start seeing how math really works. His idea was to teach calculus first, very simplistically.

"He teaches concepts of calculus by using a runner on a football field. It's a linear equation, constant velocity motion. You've got a player running on a football field. He starts at the zero yard line and runs 10 yards per second for three seconds, so he ends up on the 30-yard line. It's that simple.

"Students learn motion and time and how to graph that, and then you plug it into equations. They learn how to take the derivative, the slope, which is the average velocity, and at the last, they learn to integrate, which is the area under the line, or how far you ran. It's easy when taught this way.

"I volunteered my time. They bought their books. We did it as a fundraiser for the school. They paid $70. Dow donated $1,000.

"I never taught, so it was a learning experience for me. We only had an hour each week. If we'd had two hours, I probably would have finished in two or three months, but you can't sit in a math class that long, and I don't think I can talk that long. I was exhausted after an hour.

"I want to teach this again somewhere. I wouldn't mind writing a book expanding on his concept. It's important, showing kids how to use math in finance, science, biology, all the different disciplines.

"If you are going out to plant corn in a field, how do you know how much corn to buy? It's things like that, simple math problems that will show children how math works. As long as it's not hard.

"If you teach it easy, that builds confidence. If you are confident, you will succeed.

"I told my students, 'If you think you aren't good, you won't try. If you go in saying you can do this, you might not succeed, but you will learn from it. That's really why I taught the class.

"I let them design their diplomas. My parting words were, 'If I told you that if you learned Spanish, you would make a lot of money, would you learn Spanish?' They all raised their hands. I reminded them what I told them the first day. Math is the language of logic. That's all it is, a language.

"If you learn math, I guarantee that there will be more doors open to you. If you don't know math, there will be something you can't do. Learn math.

"In the sixth grade, my life changed. It was being put in that advanced math class and told that I could do it. And I did it. If I'd kept being told I couldn't do it, I probably wouldn't be here today."Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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