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Jason Olson, Deseret Morning News
American Fork Junior High teacher Travis Lemon builds students' interest by showing how math concepts can be applied.

HIGHLAND — In Sharon Christensen's classes at Mountain Ridge Junior High, students are drinking O.J. — not for their health but for their math.

Students added water and concentrate to four mixes and then jotted down the fractions of concentrate in each mix. They divided the numerators by denominators and found percentages.

Then their taste buds went to work. After sampling each orange juice mix, they concluded that ones with higher percentages of concentrate tasted more "orangey."

While Christensen leads the pre-algebra lesson, another fraction is on her mind: one-third.

That's her chance of receiving the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics, which includes $10,000, a citation signed by President Bush and a trip to Washington, D.C.

Christensen, with Alpine School District colleagues Travis Lemon, of American Fork Junior High, and Amy Smithson, of Pleasant Grove High, are the state's three math nominees for the award, sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

There also is an award for a science teachers from each state, said Diana Suddreth, secondary mathematics curriculum specialist for the Utah State Office of Education, an award recipient.

Christensen, Lemon and Smithson were nominated for the award at the district level. They submitted applications, which were evaluated by a committee.

"The committee members were not revealed, but the committee consists of persons such as past awardees, leaders in mathematics in Utah, business leaders, university mathematics professors and others who are interested in and contribute to mathematics education in Utah," said Suddreth in an e-mail.

The national committee that will decide who will receive the award from each state is made up of nationally prominent math, science, education and business leaders, Suddreth said.

To many folks, Christensen, Lemon and Smithson have the unenviable jobs of teaching teens and preteens one of the hardest, homework-intensive subjects.

However, the teachers said they are inspired by the students' energy.

Like Christensen, Lemon looks for real-world examples to illustrate theoretical concepts behind Math 7, pre-algebra, algebra, geometry and algebra II.

For instance, his students recently used city maps to learn about square roots.

"We started in a very basic applicable, real-world kind of thing, and built their interest and talked about how it could really be something they could use," Lemon said. "Now we're pulling the mathematics out of those (concepts) we've established. They're developing mathematical ideas that make sense that they care about because of the way we've started."

Smithson this year teaches pre-calculus and calculus. She believes organization is key — she presents her notes in outline form — and sprinkles humor into lessons.

"I just try to make them feel comfortable in the classroom, trying to help by telling stupid jokes," Smithson said. "I let them know I'm on their side. A lot of people think the teacher is the enemy."


E-mail: lhancock@desnews.com