Adding Fun into the Equation

CSM’s Strickland Finds the Puzzling Side of Math Beautiful

Susan Strickland’s office is filled with toys and puzzles, including several Rubik’s cubes, the kind of brain-teasing exercises that keep the mind limber. It’s a glimpse into the fun-loving side of Strickland, a math professor at the Leonardtown Campus and the 2011 winner of the College of Southern Maryland’s Faculty Excellence Award.

“I like things that make you go ‘hmmm,” she said. However, there’s a larger cube with an extra row of tiles that she admits she hasn’t solved. “Haven’t been able to do the big one,” she said. “But I’m working on it. I’ll get there.”

Strickland, 54, likes a challenge, and she has devoted her 28-year teaching career, including the last decade at CSM, to helping students figure out everything from algebra and geometry to advanced calculus, and she will be among this year’s presenters at the college’s annual Women and Math conference on Oct. 15. Her outlook on math defines how she approaches the subject.

“I think math is beautiful,” Strickland said, recalling a college class in which her instructor asked students to define math in one word. “People were writing things like ‘rigorous’ and ‘exact’ and ‘precise’… very harsh words to me. I had written ‘beautiful.’ People in the class made fun of me for that.”

Strickland says that there is a lot of “cool stuff” in math to enjoy: being able to describe the shapes of things in geometry, the visual aspect of calculus. But what Strickland enjoys most is teaching others how to teach, drawing on her experience in which she calls herself the product of “some really good teachers and some really bad ones.”

The teachers that didn’t impress Strickland were the ones that stood at the board and copied notes from the textbook. “The really good teachers connected the learning to the things we had learned before,” Strickland said. 

In Strickland’s Math for Future Teachers classes, she often uses manipulatives, concrete objects such as blocks or puzzle pieces to remind instructors about the basics. “A lot of people at that level look at arithmetic as something formulaic and they have to get back to thinking about it as something concrete if they are going to teach it to someone who doesn’t know anything about it at all.”

Strickland realized in the eighth grade that she wanted to be a teacher, when an instructor who had to take time away from classes called Strickland’s parents to suggest that Strickland could teach the concepts to classmates in the teacher’s absence. “I loved it. I was hooked,” said Strickland, who went on to tutor students after school and throughout college as she became more interested in mathematics.

“Algebra was like this living, breathing, growing creature and it connected with things we had learned previously, so I never saw algebra as disconnected equations or formulas that you plugged things into. I saw it as something you do. The same thing when I went into higher classes, the precalculus, geometry, trig, and eventually calculus.”

But Strickland was not a natural at math, and it took another inspirational teacher in sixth grade to motivate her. The instructor was talking in general about report cards, and he announced to the class that there was one student that had done well in everything except math. “I knew he was talking about me,” Strickland said.

Afterward, the instructor talked to her in the hallway and she recalls, “I said I don’t like math, I can’t do it. He said, ‘Well, I’m really disappointed.’ Well … if you tell me you’re disappointed in me, you’ve really gotten to me … That year was when things turned around from me being somebody who struggled with math to me being somebody who could teach the class when the teacher’s not there … I was challenged.”

Those early years and those influential instructors also helped Strickland realize that the best teachers were the ones that connected with their students beyond the classroom. “My philosophy of teaching is to be approachable. Let the student know that you’re interested not just in how they do on tests but that you care about them as a person. Let the student know that you understand that their life is not your class.”

After earning degrees from St. Mary’s College of Maryland and Lehigh University, Strickland taught at St. Mary’s before arriving at CSM in 2001. She says that she enjoys the diversity of the CSM student body and the effort that many students put forth to complete their education. “Some of them are working and coming to school at night, some are raising children and going to school at night, or going to school during the day when the kids are in school. I understand their lives are busy.”

Strickland recalled her own difficult period as a graduate student, when she was taking classes in Washington, D.C., at night at the same time she was teaching at St. Mary’s. She had two small children and was in the middle of a divorce. “I’d get home at midnight and get up at 5 a.m. the next day. My life has drastically improved since those days, but I can relate to the busy lives of the students here.”

In addition to teaching her advanced math classes at CSM, Strickland makes presentations at CSM’s annual “Women and Math Day,” offering a “Math is Fun Workshop” at this year’s fourth annual Women and Math on Oct. 15 at CSM’s La Plata Campus. She also mentors students, serves on several college committees, and serves as the national coordinator for the American Mathematical Association of Two Year Colleges Student Mathematics League annual competition.

Strickland also grades AP calculus tests in the summer, something she thought would be tedious but now enjoys because it allows her to connect with other teachers around the country when they meet as a group to grade the exams.

And in her “spare” time, Strickland has served as the technical editor for several popular best-selling “how-to” advanced math books, the “Idiot’s Guides” to algebra and calculus, written by one of Strickland’s former students at St. Mary’s College, Michael Kelley.

Kelley, 38, a Prince Frederick resident, credits Strickland for influencing his career path. Strickland was Kelley’s math mentors’ class adviser, and she would invite him to dinner with her family, where they would run possible classroom scenarios past Strickland’s children to get their input. Kelley said the sessions were more than just instruction—they provided him a family-like support group that he realized he needed just as much as the college education.

“She was not just an instructor. She was someone who cared,” Kelley said. “She made everybody always feel that they mattered most.”

Strickland takes time to keep in touch with her former students through Facebook, and says she is still learning from her students and experiences. Earlier in her career, when a student would ask a question on a homework problem, she would try to do the problem on the board in class and occasionally “get stuck.”

“In the beginning, I would just keep at it, I wouldn’t let it go. I would waste a lot of class time… and sometimes not even get to the solution. I learned a lesson: do the homework you ask your students to do, so they can’t trip you up in class.”

And it’s OK for students to see that you can’t do everything perfectly the first time, Strickland said. “Let them see that you can struggle with a problem and then tell them in class, ‘I’m going to think about this. You take it home and think about it, too.’”




Women + Math: Infinite Possibilities—Career Exploration Event for Girls Ages 13-21. 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., October 15. College of Southern Maryland, La Plata Campus, Center of Business and Industry (BI) Building, 8730 Mitchell Road, La Plata. Women + Math is an all-day event designed to give girls an opportunity to spend time with successful women in careers that draw heavily on math: health science, computer science, architecture, engineering, physics, meteorology and cyber security. Girls will participate in workshops, as well as meet one-on-one with women in their fields of interest. The day includes breakfast and lunch, hands-on workshops, career panel discussion and a keynote address by St. Mary’s Ryken High School Dean of Academics Barbara Ives, who was in the first class of females graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy. To pre-register for Women + Math, visit Registrations received by Oct. 10 will be entered in a special drawing for a $50 gift certificate. Free. 301-934-7808,