How Bees Sting
By Dominique Alexander (Douglas High School, Minden, NV)
Interviewee: Christine Ensign (Douglas High School, Minden, NV)
A little girl and her father sit side by side on the beach, enjoying the breezy summer day after a sailing lesson when they hear a faint buzz. The source of this buzz becomes apparent when the father looks down at his wrist to find a bee perched there, about to sting him. The little girl notices this too. “Dad, swat it away! Get it off!” the girl pleads, panicked. But the father continues to observe the bee with calm, cool eyes. “Do you know how bees sting?” he asks his daughter. She shakes her head, still eyeing the bee apprehensively. “Okay, watch what it does. See how its stinger goes under my skin? The bee is injecting me with venom. And see how when it flies away, the stinger is left in my skin there?” The girl is listening intently now, her apprehension faded, her mind absorbing this information. After the bee leaves she asks her father, “Didn’t that hurt you?” Her father responds with a small smile. “Only a little.”
40 years later, Christine Ensign’s eyes still light up while she reminisces on this memory with her father. Now working as a full-time AP Statistics teacher at Douglas High School in Minden, Nevada, and a part-time consulting statistician, Mrs. Ensign credits much of her love of mathematical reasoning to her family. Her father’s Spock-like supreme logic ensured that she was always thinking deeply and her mother’s propensity for numbers and constant encouragement inspired Mrs. Ensign to excel academically. However, Mrs. Ensign’s most influential role model in her childhood was her older brother.
“I idolized my brother,” Mrs. Ensign professes. “He was very good at math and a hurdler in track, and I became both of those things. I really looked up to him, and I think we naturally had similar interests.”
Mrs. Ensign, along with her family, grew up in the small town of East Canton, Ohio. This two-stoplight town inhabited primarily by cows and cornfields and lacking a single fast-food restaurant instilled a set life path for most of its citizens: Work in the factory and raise a family. Neither of Mrs. Ensign’s parents attended college and they both worked in factories their whole lives because it was the “responsible thing to do,” but Mrs. Ensign never felt constrained to this destiny.
“My mom told us from day one that we were very smart and very capable and expected us to do well in school. There was this expectation that we should think and learn things, and be successful in our learning. I never thought I wouldn’t go to college, even if my parents didn’t.”
Mrs. Ensign went on as a first-generation college student to earn a bachelor’s degree at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and worked on her master’s degree at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she fell in love with the Sierra Nevada Mountains and never looked back.
While studying at UNR, she also taught freshman-level mathematics courses, which began her 18-year teaching career. Despite her love affair with mathematics, her goals while teaching her students extend far beyond number-crunching.
“My goals have nothing to do with actual content. My overall goal is to help students think well and to think deeply, to foster a love for learning, to appreciate the power and beauty of mathematics, and to uncover and explain the underlying nature of things. I really hope to ignite curiosity, and I hope that my students leave my class with a really good foundation in mathematics because it contributes to skills that will help them learn any other concepts.”
This philosophy is evident in her teaching style, which resembles a conversation more than itdoes a lecture. Her enthusiasm oozes, and she encourages her students to engage with the problems they work on. She emphasizes practical application, urges us to consider what question we are really trying to answer beyond the confines of the problem, whether the answer we reach is reasonable, and why the answer is meaningful. But most of all, she is authentic. She doesn’t aim to be perfectly put-together at all times, and has the courage to be vulnerable and open-minded in both her teaching and personal life.
The main component of Mrs. Ensign’s authentic and humble nature is her eagerness to learn new things, even regarding topics she is considered to be an expert in. Some of her favorite things to investigate in her free time are number theory, modular arithmetic, cryptography, and statistics in different lights. Jordan Ellenberg’s “How Not to Be Wrong” and Hans Rosling’s “Factfulness” are among her favorite reads, and every year she uncovers a new connection within the content that she teaches that she had never considered before.
“One of the powerful things that I hope students get that I also notice for myself is that you can learn so much from looking at simple things deeply. I also encourage students to read what other intelligent people have had to say and expand their horizons.”
Learning simple things deeply is as valuable, if not more valuable, than learning complicated things shallowly. Mrs. Ensign proves that students don’t need to jump into quantum mechanics or differential calculus to expand their horizons; sometimes, it all starts with a bee sting.