In Mike Conklin’s pre-calculus class Wednesday, students were learning about piecewise functions – a way of calculating energy use in a building, the rate of water filling a bathtub or the altitude of an airplane using multiple formulas and graphs.
“It’s a very new concept for them,” Conklin said. It’s a relatively early class, but the students are all paying attention.
He described reading a story about a man who grows poinsettias for a living. From September through January, he works very hard, but for the rest of the year he didn’t work.
“His budget would be a very piecewise budget,” Conklin explained about the ebb and flow of the man’s income.
Using examples like this, Conklin, 40, has become a popular teacher at University High School. One of his colleagues, Tamera Anderberg, recently nominated him for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. He is now one of three state finalists.
“I’m just really proud of the fact that he gets the opportunity for this,” Anderberg said.
Congress established the awards in 1983. The president can select up to 108 winners a year from the 50 states and four United States jurisdictions – Washington, D.C., the Department of Defense Education Activity Schools, Puerto Rico and U.S. Territories of American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
If Conklin is chosen, he will receive a certificate signed by President Barack Obama, a paid trip for two to Washington, D.C., to attend a series of events, and a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation.
This is Conklin’s 18th year as a teacher, his ninth at U-Hi. Anderberg said she asked his permission before she filed her nomination because there is a lot of work involved for the nominees. Conklin collected three letters of recommendation, his résumé and background information. He also had to film a lesson between 25 and 50 minutes long. There could be no edits or captions. After the video was filmed, he had to reflect on how the lesson went. He sent information on work he does outside of the classroom in math. The Federal Bureau of Investigation will also perform a background check because if he wins, he’ll get to meet the president. Although, Conklin said he is most looking forward to the professional development opportunities that would come his way if he wins.
He said he always wanted to be a teacher. When he was a child, he hated missing school for fear of not learning something important that day. In kindergarten, he drew a picture of what he wanted to be when he grew up, with the caption, “I want to be a teacher, he helps people learn.”
Conklin’s interests vary. He minored in art in college. He played football. He plays the guitar and once took a cake decorating class.
“I can make a perfect rose with frosting,” he said.
But when it came to picking a subject to teach, he chose math.
“Math kind of came naturally to me,” he said.
Senior Victoria Carbury is in his pre-calculus class, and said she took his algebra class as a freshman.
“He was always available after school for me,” she said. She also appreciates that he studied art, as he can draw things to better explain them.
Conklin said he feels very humbled by this nomination. When walking through the halls of the school, he can often hear what is going on in other classrooms, other teachers doing good work.
“I know the great things that go on in my colleagues’ classes on a daily basis, so it feels a bit strange to be singled out,” he said.
Anderberg said Conklin is very humble about his intelligence and his ability to teach a higher level of math. She said he is constantly learning new things and strives to improve his teaching.
She said the decision to nominate him was an easy one.
“(I want to) thank him for helping me be a better teacher,” she said.