Learning to love math

Associate Professor, Math Club Advisor- Lake Worth
M.S., Florida Atlantic University
A.A., Palm Beach Community College

Alex Opritsa

Carrying a tray of sub sandwiches and two-liter beverages, Palm Beach State College student Vida Smith hurried into the room where Professor Alex Opritsa was busy at the whiteboard helping another student solve a matrix theory problem.

“If you don’t feed your brain, you can’t work,’’ Smith chuckled as she headed to a table to set up the food for herself and more than a dozen other students there for a two-hour Friday afternoon math help session hosted by the Math Club on the Lake Worth campus.

Opritsa established the club in 2010 after a group of his math students expressed a need to get extra help. He was an adjunct professor then and spent much of his own time helping students. He would meet them in the library or the Math Lab for special help sessions and announce those sessions in all of his classes.

“It started out as a support system and help for the students because I wanted them to be successful. I wanted them to do well in the class,’’ said Opritsa, a Palm Beach State alumnus who worked as a tutor,

Supplemental Instruction leader and a part-time instructor before becoming a full-time professor in

2011. “We would just sit there and do math. This started proving to be successful. I’d be there and people would show up from different classes. The groups got larger and larger. We went beyond the curriculum. They would just learn math outside the classroom and have fun doing so. The club was really established without being established. We just said ‘let’s make it a club.’ ”

Since its formal establishment, the Math Club has become increasingly popular, with 640 members on the roster. Students like the help they get from Opritsa, who has a contagious love for math. The club’s twice-a-month math help sessions are open to all students, not just those in Opritsa’s classes, and they get help with every level from basic algebra to differential equations. Opritsa helps the students with math problems. They help each other. And, well, they eat, thanks to club members like Smith who says students can’t focus on math if they are hungry.

“I love this club,’’ said Smith, who is studying business and first learned of the club from a friend who was enrolled in one of Opritsa’s classes. “He’s there to help every student. You don’t have to be in his classes for him to help you. It’s amazing. He goes overboard.’’

The math help sessions are among the club’s numerous activities. Members also participate in community service projects, including collecting food for a local food pantry to help the needy. The club hosts guest speakers who discuss math concepts, and it holds monthly Math Phobics Anonymous meetings. During those meetings, the lights are dimmed and spa music is played softly through computer speakers; chairs are arranged in a circle for students to sit and share their challenges with math and learn strategies to overcome them.

“He’s a great instructor mainly because he very much likes to reach the students. If there’s a way to reach the students, he’ll find it,’’ said Nicholas Arcaro, an A.A. degree student and aspiring engineer. He has been a member of the club since 2011 and serves as its math therapy initiative coordinator.

Opritsa said the math club helps build students’ confidence so they can perform better in their classes. “It just seems like it makes the most sense to have students network together and help each other outside of the classroom, supporting each other. They come in here and they get motivated. They feel comfortable with math and that gives them the necessary support to do math independently and to learn,’’ he said. “It’s a network of math learning for the whole College.”

need to ask….

Q What inspired you to become a math professor?

A When I look back at how I ended up here, it just kind of happened step by step. Once I started working with students as a tutor, as a Supplemental Instruction leader and as a graduate assistant teaching classes and doing presentations in my graduate classes, it started converging on to this. But, I had no idea that I would be a professor. I realized ‘that’s what I want to do’ once I tried it. It wasn’t something that I kind of jumped right into. I really love it now.

Q What approach do you take to teach students, and why?

A I take the approach of learning it with them as opposed to teaching at them. That’s what works best because of the type of subject that it is. It’s really about exploration, curiosity and discovery.

Q How do you reach students who come to you with a fear of math?

A In the classroom, I find creative ways to share the beauty and relevance of mathematics and how it applies to our lives. I help them to try to connect on a personal level with the subject. When they take a math class they don’t necessarily have the awareness of how they can relate to it. People like it once they begin to understand it.

Q If students were giving a speech about you, what would they say?

A They would probably say that I’m caring and passionate about what I do.