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Howard Branch: Turning on the Light
November 21, 2013

As a mentor for his church’s youth mentoring program for middle school boys, aerospace engineer Howard Branch uses math tricks to make math easy, interesting and even fun. [image-51]

Fifteen years ago, aerospace engineer Howard Branch became involved with the Young Men’s Mentoring Program at his church, Ebenezer United Methodist Church in Lanham, Maryland.  The program works with  young men of middle school age.

Branch was invited because of his strong math background. Even 15 years ago, educators were concerned about deficiencies in math education scores. He admits that it took “a little brow beating, arm twisting and a sense of duty–all the usual incentives.”

Typically, about a dozen mentors are given eight to ten young men from the public schools local to the church. Each young man is assigned his own mentor.

The mentors and young men meet three Saturdays a month during the academic year. Two Saturdays a month, they meet for three hours of tutoring including a full hour for math. Each mentor teaches a different subject. Branch’s subjects are general math and algebra.  The third Saturday a month, the group goes on a field trip.

“Some of the kids are more enthusiastic than others, but these kids are not that much different from how my own two were at that age,” said Branch. “However, we tend to get young men who do not have an adult male figure in their home.”

His first challenge is motivating the kids, many of whom are not interested in learning. Branch tries to get beyond whether or not the kids want to be there by explaining what they are trying to accomplish. The monthly field trips also help motivate the kids. “Fun is a great motivator,” said Branch. The field trips open the group to other social settings such as museums, restaurants and sporting events; Friday night basketball; and general conversations about life. Wherever they go, Branch links the field trip to math. “We might discuss Kobe Bryant’s scores, which uses their interest in sports figures as a bridge into math,” said Branch.

Once motivated, he finds ways to make math easy and exciting. “Everyone gets one-on-one help, which allows us to go painfully through every detail making sure everyone understands,” says Branch. “Everyone comprehends at a different speed.”

Branch literally pulls out his magic math tricks. “For example, any multiplication of five ends up with a five or a zero on the end,” said Branch. “The kids thoroughly enjoy the tricks and want more.”

Branch’s efforts have paid off. At the beginning of the year, a C in math for the group would be good. By the start of the final quarter, the group’s average would often be raised to a B and all students would be passing or better.  

“What I am really looking for is seeing the light go on and the youth accepting a sense of responsibility, need and desire to learn. Once this happens, the rest will come along. Turning on the light is the ultimate in my mind,” said Branch.

Branch remembers one special success story. This particular student spoke at their end-of-year closing ceremony attended by parents, mentors and local community notables.

“Throughout the year, this one kid always claimed that he knew math well although his actions at the chalkboard indicated otherwise. At the closing ceremony, he recognized that his level of math was still inadequate, but he was mentally ready to go do whatever he needed to do to make the grade. He had gotten it. The light had turned on. I knew then that he was going to be OK, not just in academics, but in life,” said Branch.

“In my next career, I may like to be a teacher or school counselor. When I help a young person turn on the light, I know that I have touched him or her where the rubber meets the road; it is a meaningful connection,” said Branch.

Related Link:

Read Howard Branch's Conversations With Goddard interview.

Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

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Howard Branch
Howard Branch
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Courtesy of H. Branch
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Page Last Updated: November 21st, 2013
Page Editor: Lynn Jenner