Infinite Possibilities

UAB Alumna Finds Magic in Math

By Dale Short

 

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Dilhani Uswatte uses innovative methods to help students understand mathematics.

Pop quiz: What do creative dance, geometry, a quarterback sneak, and a video documentary all have in common?

If you’re a student of UAB School of Education alumna Dilhani Uswatte at Berry Middle School in Hoover, the answer is a four-letter word: math. Uswatte’s mission as a teacher, she says, is to help kids see the infinite connections between everyday life and a subject that many of us can’t bear to think about. Her energetic approach to math education has already earned her a prestigious national teaching award and induction into the Alabama Teacher Hall of Fame.

“I believe the traditional way of teaching math was not the best way to lead to understanding,” Uswatte says. “Most of it was rote and memorization, as if answering 30 questions on the same concept could make it somehow ‘stick’ in a student’s mind. But then, the problem was to take that concept and apply it to the real world, which is altogether different.”

The new trend in math, Uswatte says, takes the opposite approach. “Begin with a problem in the real world; the cool part is that so many kids have an immediate gut reaction as to where to start. So the teacher’s job is to build on that intuition. Afterward, you can teach the details that make the solution more efficient, but so often, the basic problem-solving skills are already there.”

Not Just the Numbers

Uswatte was born in Germany to parents of Sri Lankan origin. Her family later emigrated to Canada, where she lived until her husband, a psychologist, was offered a job at UAB. Though her initial degrees in Canada were in biology and secondary education, her personal fascination was with mathematics—which happened to be the teaching job that was open at Berry when she moved to Birmingham. “I didn’t choose my job, it sort of chose me,” she says with a laugh. “As much as I loved teaching, though, I also wanted to improve my leadership abilities, and the obvious choice was to earn my master’s in educational leadership at UAB.”

 

Real World Inspiration

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Each year, Uswatte and her colleagues teaching the other core subjects of language arts, history, and science at Berry Middle School hold a special “team night” celebration for their students. Past editions have included a middle-school version of the Oscars, with attendees dressed in formal wear and awards given for the best math-themed videos. This year the theme was “A Night at the Museum,” with special guests including the philosopher-mathematician Pythagoras and Pierre Fermat, founder of modern calculus.

Throughout the year, Uswatte also brings in professionals from the community to talk to students about the ways that math skills are an important part of their jobs. Recent guest speakers have included a female engineer from corporate giant Southern Company, who explained how the world’s changing energy needs make engineering an excellent career choice for the 21st century, and a biostatistician from UAB, who discussed the crucial role that math plays in health care and the prevention of disease.

Uswatte became involved in the Greater Birmingham Mathematics Partnership (GBMP), a collaborative effort between UAB, Birmingham-Southern College, and area school districts that provides professional development programs for middle-school math teachers and studies the impact of those programs. “The GBMP courses dramatically impacted the way I teach,” Uswatte says. “While I was already inclined to the ‘constructivist’ approach, which aims at understanding rather than memorization, it was the wonderful leaders at GBMP who were models of that kind of teaching and who helped solidify my thinking.”

At Berry, Uswatte’s real-world jumping-off points for exploring mathematical concepts have ranged from a student video documentary on the many ways football players and coaches use math to make decisions on the field, to teaching geometry through dance. “At this point, notice that your arms are exactly 90-degree angles,” she’ll call out above the music. Or: “Form two parallel dance lines.”

Math on the Move

For some reason that’s not perfectly understood yet, Uswatte says, physical movement is a key component in learning, regardless of the subject matter: When children are not stuck in a seat, “they remember what they’ve learned for a much longer period. And if I can throw in a little bit of dance now and then, that’s even better.”

To say that the outside world is paying attention to Uswatte’s efforts is an understatement. In October 2009, she won the prestigious Milken National Educator Award for her innovative teaching methods—and for helping to organize a relief effort to rebuild a school in her native Sri Lanka that was devastated by the catastrophic 2004 tsunami. “Being able to go there and see our names on the plaque and to see them have a school again was just amazing,” Uswatte recalls.

The next natural step in her career progression, she says, is that she’s now back at UAB, working toward her doctorate in educational leadership. But perhaps the most rewarding part of her job, she adds, is that it’s been several years now since she’s heard a student say, “Why should I study math? I’ll never get to use it.”

Uswatte says, “I think that’s definitely progress.”