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Young engineer's vision: helping kids conquer math aversion

By: Don Kirkland

Jan. 20, 2007

While he never experienced it himself, Snehal Patel had heard the story many times of young people diverted from an otherwise bright academic future by one of life’s most common educational stumbling blocks: math aversion.

So the 26-year-old son of immigrant parents gave up a comfortable job as a Motorola software engineer to join a worldwide movement which helps young people conquer that most troublesome of learning pitfalls.

His work, it seems, has produced more than better math students. It has changed lives.

“Once young people conquer their fear of math, once they accomplish that, it’s a success that flows into other parts of their lives,” said Patel. “It affects how they interact with the rest of the world.”

In less than two years after launching the local branch of an educational consortium known as Mathnasium, Patel has seen its innovative curriculum achieve exactly the results he describes.

“Imagine sitting in a math class every day and not understanding what the teacher was saying,” he says.

“You don’t feel good about yourself, you’re frustrated, you have a sense of helplessness.” In short, “You hate it.”

However, Patel notes, “When one of these students sees math in a way that makes sense, their entire perception of math changes.”

Using tests to zero in on each student’s strengths and weaknesses, the system can identify where specific help is needed.

“We find that a student who doesn’t like division, for example, may be fine with decimals but has trouble with fractions. So it’s (on fractions) that we target our efforts.”

Patel gave up his job at Motorola’s Price Road plant in October 2004, he says, after deciding to embark on a new career—a move he admits was exciting but risky.

“Always since I was a kid I wanted to be an entrepreneur,” he said, “as long as in some way it involved giving back to the community.”

He spent six months checking out big-name franchises, but his passion for numbers, he says, led him to the smaller Mathnasium, which originated in Southern California 32 years ago and has spread to 250 centers in the U.S. and around the world.

Whereas its Japanese cousin Kumon utilizes what Patel describes as a broad-brush approach, a kind of one-size-fits-all strategy to teach both math and reading skills, he says Mathnasium’s math-only system involves determining how much training each student needs and tailoring a program to fit.

Besides enabling him to nourish what he describes as a “passion” for math, Patel says he enjoys working with young people from second through 12th grades—including not only those who struggle with numbers but others who are math-gifted and feel they don’t get enough stimulation in regular school classes.

Although his students are spread more or less evenly across age and time-of-year categories, Patel says there’s always a rush of sign-ups prior to SAT or AIMS testing.

Enrollment fees, on average $13-14 an hour, are based on a variety of factors, including subject and the depth of training desired. Costs are higher for short-term, high-intensity programs, considerably lower for long-term, membership-style classes.

While he has seen inspirational outcomes, Patel points out, the system he uses isn’t for everyone.

“We’re not here to put on a Band-Aid. We turn some people down because the student is failing and, just as it took a while to get to that point, it may take a while to fix.”

Information: (480) 782-1924.


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