NASA People

Center Snapshot: Gayle Burton
Gayle Burton. Image above: Gayle Burton, in front of a Langley computer cluster called "K," is a lover of math who believes children should be exposed to the terms of algebra earlier in life. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

Jim Hodges

The reason so many children struggle with algebra, said Gayle Burton, is that they’re not introduced to the concept early enough.

“You have 50 cents,” she said. “You go to a store and see something you want to buy for 75 cents. How much more do you need?”

That’s when you realize a second-grader has solved for “X” to buy a piece of candy, just as Burton’s home-schooled children did as they were growing up.

“They don’t introduce those (algebraic) terms early enough,” Burton said. “It scares people.”

Burton, a computer system administrator with Raytheon at NASA Langley, supporting the Computational Aero Sciences Branch, took that math approach to the classroom for three semesters, from 2005-07, when she left the center, where she had worked since 1989. When she came back to Langley in 2007, she worked on a project involving getting all of the center’s computing systems certified and accredited, then returned to her previous role as system administrator.

She comes by teaching honestly. Her mother and sister are teachers. Her mother taught math in the Norfolk public school system for three decades and is currently an adjunct professor at Old Dominion.

That’s when she’s not appearing on stage in costume and with props as Brenda Barrow, “The Math Lady from Outer Space.” She performed during the November TEDx-NASA conference at Christopher Newport University.

 Daughter Gayle was on the TEDx-NASA staff, working far into the night on the eve of the conference and after.

“She’s a little unusual if you’ve watched her talk,” Burton said, laughing at the memory of her mother on stage. “It runs in the family. She brought me up to teach in a hands-on, different way.”

While away from Langley, Burton taught computer programming skills and math at Norfolk Christian and Portsmouth Christian schools. “I really liked teaching geometry,” she said. “And I was a hands-on teacher. I wasn’t a lecture, lecture kind of teacher. We did a lot of hands-on activities.”

She stood and for a moment was back in the classroom demonstrating a straight line.

“I didn’t do dress-up,” Burton said, laughing, which is something she does easily. “I’m not as bold as my mother is. Nothing scares her.

“But we did have a lot of silly skits. And we did walking field trips around the school building, where they had to find parallel lines and things like that. “You can actually do hands-on things in more subjects than people realize. One of the other math teachers said, ‘You can’t do that in my class.’ I told him, ‘Yes you can. You¹ve got to be creative.’ ”

She also learned to use a computer in her youth, at a time when the home computer was an anomaly, rather than a fixture.

“My Algebra II teacher introduced me to computer skills,” Burton said. “This was back in like ’82, ’83. She and her husband had built their own computer from a Heathkit, and she brought it in and taught us basic programming. She had one computer, and she made us take turns.’

“I thought, ‘this is kind of cool. This is like math on a computer.’ I learned to mix them together, and that’s why I majored in computer science.” Her father was an electrical engineer – with a slide rule – at Langley Air Force Base, and he brought his daughter to the NASA visitor center, which is now the Pearl Young Theater, many times in her youth. Space fascinated her.

“I wanted to be an astronaut,” she said.

When she learned that math was involved, she was hooked.

Away from Langley, she retreats to land in Suffolk, with her husband, a Norfolk Fire Department battalion chief; children, three horses, two ponies, five chickens, five cats and three dogs.

The animals are being raised on a four-acre spread with an adjacent seven acres of pasture. The family rides on nearby land and also rides annually in charity affairs.

Their farm is an escape of sorts after growing up in Norfolk.

“We moved out there in 1999,” Burton said. “I love it, and I never want to move back. I like having room. There’s little traffic. Good neighbors. When we go back to Norfolk, it seems like people are living on top of each other, and there’s a stoplight every 10 feet.”

Her son is a student at Tidewater Community College, preparing to attend Virginia Tech. A daughter is a senior in high school, and another daughter is a high school sophomore who has declared her intent to be an engineer. Both daughters attend Portsmouth Christian.

The elder daughter is mathematically rebellious. From a teacher’s standpoint, she’s the one who got away.

Don’t expect to see her perform algebra skits, from outer space or any other kind of space.

“Morgan says ‘I hate math,’ ” Burton reported. “She wants to be a physician’s assistant.”