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At the Head of the Class

Full of complicated curves and grids,
altitudes and angles, mathematics is a subject that many students lose interest in after mastering long division in elementary school.

Julian Dietrich '11 knows this, but through his acceptance to the prestigious Woodrow Wilson Indiana Teaching Fellowship Program, he is determined to transform math's fear-inducing reputation — one equation and geometric shape at a time."I've taken math classes, and I've been in that weird limbo, too, where I get it but I don't get it," Dietrich says. "I've needed a little extra push to actually internalize what I've learned and then use it. One of my main goals is to provide that extra push for students because this country needs more kids who are into math."

As the need for teachers continually grows, it is estimated that nearly 300,000 new math and science instructors will be needed in America's public schools by 2015, according to the Business-Higher Education Forum. Dietrich will now be among them, thanks to the fellowship program, he says.

"Math is currently taught as this nebulous, abstract thing that uses its own separate rules and operates in its own separate world. That's not good. When students can visualize math, it's easier for them to understand it, and it makes it less scary," says Dietrich, whose favorite math courses include geometry and calculus, particularly because they are visual and can be easily modeled in a classroom. "That's part of what my challenge is as a teacher, to get students to enjoy math. I have to motivate them to learn."

The oldest of three, Dietrich grew up in Reading, where he was homeschooled. He watched a lot of "Bill Nye the Science Guy" as a kid, he says, and learned he had a knack for math and science. His dream was to become an architect, but after enrolling at Albright, his career path changed. "I didn't know if I really wanted to design buildings," says Dietrich, who graduated in December 2011 with a double major in mathematics and physics.

In September 2011, he applied for the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. "I had entertained vague notions of teaching for a while, but I was thinking I would teach in academia. It didn't click for me until I discovered that the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship existed. I thought, 'Oh, this is really cool.' I can be responsible for the learning of these kids," he says.

Dietrich was one of 55 applicants out of 2,000 to be accepted into the highly selective program in April 2012, following an intensive interview process. One of eight fellows studying at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., he is the first Albright graduate to participate in the program.

"I remember getting the fat [acceptance] envelope in the mail and having to sit down and process it for a very long time," he says. "I was excited to be selected."

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The Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship recruits teachers, both recent college graduates and those seeking a career change, with backgrounds in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). The goal of the program is to put strong teachers into high-need schools and retain top teachers, according to the fellowship's website. Eligible candidates must have attained a bachelor's degree from an accredited U.S. college or university, have majored in or have a strong professional background in a STEM field, and have a cumulative 3.0 undergraduate GPA.

The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation administers the teaching program, which is offered in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan, and each teaching fellow receives a $30,000 fellowship to complete a specially designed master's degree program at a participating college or university. As part of the fellowship, participants then commit to teach for three years in high-need urban or rural secondary schools.

Fellows learn how to teach through observation, active lesson planning and teaching in real classrooms. Once they obtain a teacher certification, fellows are then eligible to accept teaching jobs in science and math classrooms anywhere in the state in which they are completing their master's program.

"I want to be a positive influence on [students'] lives," Dietrich says. "Because of the situation that they're in, there's a chance they might not have that otherwise. I want to motivate the students and get them interested in learning math."

Dietrich moved to Indiana in mid-May and spent the summer taking classes at Ball State. This fall, he is continuing his course work and co-teaching at an area school. "Co-teaching is different from student teaching because you're not teaching from day one," Dietrich explains. "You start with observation and take notes, and then gradually grow into a larger role in the classroom. That way you don't have a deer-in-the-headlights look at the front of the classroom when you do start teaching."

Several Albright professors have influenced Dietrich, who says he plans to incorporate their teaching styles into his own. Dietrich recalls Christopher Catone, Ph.D., and his passion for math, and the support provided by Brian Buerke, Ph.D., particularly during his "Quantum Physics" class sophomore year. "He let me sit in his office for entire days while figuring out a quantum physics problem," Dietrich says.

Dietrich also points to Lawrence Morris, Ph.D., associate professor of English, whose one-of-a-kind, energetic personality is unforgettable, and Lisa Bellantoni, Ph.D., associate professor of philosophy, who encourages students to think outside the box. "Dr. Bellantoni would have us imagine that we're being run over by elephants or turning into a robot," he recalls. "Thinking outside the box is beaten out of students when they enter the school system because they're taught that there is one answer, and it's in the back of the book. I would like to 'unbox' the students and get them to think laterally again. I don't know how to do that yet, but that's my goal by the time I graduate – to learn how to do that."

Morris describes Dietrich as a bright student who "was never complacent about his education here at Albright, but always strove instead to engage with the big ideas." He says the well-rounded education that Dietrich received at Albright, including excelling in Morris's "Irish Literature" course, will make him an outstanding teacher and, in turn, influence future generations of budding mathematicians.

"The fact that Julian found that course so helpful shows, in part, that great scientists, great educators, great innovators are born not just in labs, but also in literature classrooms, in history lectures, in philosophy discussions," Morris says. "As they are challenged to move beyond the comfort of their own disciplines, students learn to see the world from different angles, and that change of perspective can really drive their curiosity, their creativity and their thirst for knowledge in their own discipline."

Dietrich is grateful for his professors and overall Albright experiences. Now, he says, it's time for him to move [back] to the head of the class.

"I was aware that teaching is not just a job. I was aware that there is a social work aspect, too, because the life of my students might not be the best," he says. "But as I'm going through this, I'm now aware that teaching is a lifestyle. It's a way of life."

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