CCA math teacher brings real-world engineering experience to lessons

Commonwealth Charter Academy teacher Mary Thorn bring real-world experience to the online classroom. Read why a former engineer decided to join CCA to teach math.

​Mary Thorn teaches her algebra students the importance of math in real-world application and careers.

For CCA teacher Mary Thorn, math is the foundation of countless careers open to today’s students.

“It doesn’t matter if you will never be asked to solve for X once you get out of high school, because you are going to be asked to solve many logical problems,” she said. “It’s math that trains a child’s brain to think logically.”

Thorn shares that message with authority, because she plotted her own career course based on her love of math. She is a professional engineer who graduated with a college class that included few other women. As a structural engineer for Westinghouse, she helped design structures at nuclear power facilities. She continued to win promotions after earning her master’s degree in engineering with a focus on engineering management, and she owes it all to math.

“I like math,” she said. “It’s simple. It got me where I am today, because when I graduated from high school, I didn’t even know what an engineer was.”

Thorn enjoyed working with engineers, who are “down-to-earth people. They’re predictable. They’re logical. They’re methodical.”

When she had children, Thorn “committed to parenthood,” as she put it, and left the office to stay home with her kids. As an active mom, she became a Girl Scouts leader and discovered that she enjoyed “working with kids and helping them grow.”

That’s when the idea of teaching occurred to her, so she returned to school for her teaching certification. She started teaching in 2002 and joined CCA in 2009. “From the get-go,” she wanted to teach math, Thorn said.

“I worked as an engineer for many years,” she said. “I had my good days and my bad days then, but I have never had a day of teaching when I didn’t come home and say, ‘I made a difference for those kids.’ There’s always something rewarding in every single day.”

Teaching algebra II and honors algebra II, Thorn appreciates “teaching the kids who are going to be the heart surgeons 15 years from now and explaining to them how what they’re doing in math applies to what they’re going to be learning later,” she said.

But she knows there’s more to it than that.

With her real-world experience, she can see the relevance of algebra equations in everyday occurrences. Her students learn the equations they are studying form the mathematical principle behind acceleration, affecting everything from driving a car to playing games on a smartphone.

“Even something as simple as ‘Angry Birds’ is algebra II,” she said. “The trajectory of those birds is governed by the equation we studied in algebra II.”

Girls are just as good as boys at math, but too often they think they have to be perfect, Thorn said. She teaches all students, girls and boys, that they learn the same way that everyone learns in the real world — from their mistakes.

“That is how they’re growing. That is how they are developing,” she said. “You have to not be afraid to make mistakes. You’ve got to fail in order to succeed. Once you’ve failed at something, you understand why it doesn’t work. If it works the first time, sometimes it’s just luck.”

She said she finds her virtual lessons and online interactions with CCA students energizing. They give her a chance to learn about her students.

One student frequently came to her with questions about his lessons, while she learned from him about his family’s turkey farm. That student has been accepted at Penn State University's main campus and wants to be an engineer, and he told Thorn she inspired him to go in that direction.

“I’m absolutely delighted,” she said. “He worked hard, and he could basically decide what he wanted to do. The world is his oyster. His parents are phenomenal, but I know for sure I’m the one who got him thinking about being an engineer.”

For all her students, Thorn stresses that learning math comes only through practice.

“Math,” she tells them so often that they’re sick of hearing it, “is not a spectator sport. Math is a participation sport.”