Student Essay Contest

Marcella Jones: Diversity in mathematics

2004 AWM Essay Contest: Honorable Mention in the College Category

By Heather Paulson

Marcella Diana Jones is a mathematics educator who sees herself as a “spirit of support and encouragement in mathematics to all students of all mathematical abilities.” She was born the year of 1957 in Kansas City, Kansas. While growing up during the 60’s with her four sisters, Marcella was loved and encouraged by a very supportive family. This love from her family was a continuing factor in her confidence as a person as well as an educator.
At an early age, Marcella’s father Marcel introduced her to the marvels of mathematics and science. Marcel persistently fixed discarded or broken electronics. Without an elaborate family income, he was able to provide his family with the latest technology and obscure instruments. For example, one year for Halloween he put together an old speaker/radio with a microphone in order to spook the “trick or treaters”.
Her father’s fascination with electronics and science had an incredible impact on Marcella’s education. Her father and mother required Marcella and her sisters to take every math and science class offered at their schools. This requirement did not seem out of the ordinary to Marcella at the time because it was expected of her. In hindsight she is amazed that her parents had the foresight to know mathematics would be so important to her and her sisters’ education and future. During this time, Marcella’s mathematical role models were limited to educators. She had not heard or known of any mathematicians or engineers in the black community. This fact accentuated the importance of her parent’s forethought. Being born black and female were not valid reasons for avoiding challenging math and science courses.
Marcella found love for mathematics at an early age. Her fifth grade teacher had students perform long division problems on the blackboard, and Marcella was always the first to finish. Soon thereafter, Marcella began to love the steps and processes of early mathematics. She saw it as a sport, and she became increasingly fast at solving math problems. Competition with her classmates only encouraged her more, and her precise skills left them in the dust each time. Once her mother came to her fifth grade classroom and was amazed by watching her speed and accuracy. Her teacher made a point to tell her mother that she was not performing this way because her mother was in the classroom. The teacher had explained, “She does this every time, and I just do not know how she does it.” This observation by her teacher enhanced Marcella’s interest in math. As her teacher emphasized the importance of process and accuracy in mathematics, Marcella discovered a talent for math.
During high school, she did very well in her math and science classes. Although her high school did not provide math classes beyond the level of pre-calculus, she received a full scholarship in Civil Engineering to the University of Kansas. Once she started her courses in college, she realized she did not like the field of engineering. She had pursued this particular field mainly because teachers and counselors said, “You are so good at mathematics and science, you should be an engineer.” Eventually, she decided it was not for her, and she left school.
While still in school, she met and married her husband Tim. They had two daughters, and after eleven years, Marcella longed to be back in school. She decided to enroll in a calculus course at Minneapolis Community College (MCC). With the encouragement and financial support of her husband, she eventually transferred to the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Technology. She graduated magna cum laude with a degree in mathematics and minor in computer science. She was then accepted as a fellow into the University of Minnesota’s graduate school and received her Masters in mathematics. Her thesis explored a mathematical model for the spread of infectious diseases.
During graduate school, she took an active part in mentoring under-represented youth in the area of mathematics. The University of Minnesota’s Talented Youth Math Program (UMTYMP) is an intense program for students at all levels of schooling. Her contributions to this project inspired the director to offer her a paid position as a consultant to the program. This was one of Marcella’s early opportunities to work in a classroom setting. She worked with junior high school students on the weekends in order to enhance their math skills. This work increased her interest in mathematics education.
When she finished her graduate course work at the University of Minnesota in 1994, she was offered and accepted a full-time teaching position at her alma mater, MCC, now Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC). MCTC currently has incredible diversity among its’ faculty. It has a student population of over 8000 with nearly half of them being nontraditional students. Marcella’s love and fascination for people has affected the lives of so many math students. Her background and culture have contributed to her student’s responsiveness. When students of color see her in front of the classroom, she feels they may have a sense of hope because she is a woman and of a background similar to theirs.
Marcella’s love for mathematics, enjoyment of people, and satisfaction in helping others is what has motivated her to pursue a career in mathematics. One area of mathematics which Marcella has tried to improve is the way in which the material is conveyed. She has always tried to integrate a deeper sense of mathematics history into her lessons. With her appreciation and intensity for mathematics, she continues to encourage students of all levels of ability to strive for excellence in math. Because she enjoys helping others, she does not believe in empty encouragement and insists it must be genuine to receive a genuine response. This goal is executed through her leadership in the classroom as well as her empathetic demeanor towards her students.
When asked what advice she would offer to students who are pursuing careers in the mathematical sciences she said, “Learn as much as you can as early as you can, and take advantage of every opportunity to challenge yourself mathematically.” This aim can be attained by “participating in math league exams, joining the math club or science club, and establishing one if one does not already exist on campus.” She would also encourage “students to become student members of professional math and science organizations, and to keep up on the information and literature that is available to such members. Read about great mathematicians and scientists, and study math history.” She also encourages students interested in pursuing math careers “to surround themselves with people who also love math, and share a passion for the challenges that mathematics may bring.”
Marcella’s contribution to mathematics education begins with her “encouraging those that may not have [ever] been encouraged to have a deeper understanding of math.” She also views all students as flowers. She has never wanted to weed out “flowers.” She has only wanted to “weed out [students’] fears and negativity towards math” as she encourages their growth in mathematics.
Currently Marcella is a charter member of Minnesota’s Association of Black Women in Higher Education and University of Minnesota’s National Society of Black Engineers. She is also a part of The American Mathematical Society, The American Mathematics Association of Two-Year Colleges (AMATYC), and the Math Association of America. Finally, she is a mentor to 3 future educators in the field of Mathematics.
When Marcella finds time, she pursues her other interests such as photography, reading, and writing. Other enjoyments include watching great historical biographical movies, but foremost, she values time spent with friends and adored family.
About the student:
Heather Paulson is currently a student and Teaching Assistant at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC). In spring 2005, she will transfer to Hamline University and major in Mathematics with a minor in education. Upon completion of her bachelors degree, she plans to teach Mathematics at an urban high school. Currently, she is an active member of the MCTC Math Club which holds math related seminars for students. The favorite topics of these seminars include number theory and different proof structures. Heather also volunteers weekly in an Adult Based Education math class (ABE) which is a free course offered to students who could not place in the lowest level math course offered at MCTC. Her favorite math course completed so far is multivariable calculus because of its complexity and depth. Finally Heather has been and is currently an active member on the planning committee for the annual Minnesota’s Future Teachers Conference. Heather enjoys problem solving and using mathematics to explain the marvels of the world and her surrounding community. Through this passion for math she hopes to encourage others to find amazement in the applications of mathematics.