Award-Winning Documentary Series Explores Why Math Matters

Mountain climbers, a superhero and the legendary video game pioneer who founded Atari join with faculty to explain the importance of mathematics when Pennsylvania College of Technology’s award-winning public television series returns this fall.

“Working Class: Game On! Why Math Matters” explores the link between math, computers and technology and helps connect the study of math with real-world experiences that engage student interests.

Filming “Working Class: Game On! Why Math Matters” led Christopher J. Leigh, video production coordinator at Penn College, to scale a mountain in the Shawangunk Ridge, an internationally famous rock climbing area within the Mohonk Preserve in New York state. Leigh interacts with members of the Shawanpunk climbing team featured in the documentary.

Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, who appears in the documentary, is one of “50 Men Who Changed America,” according to Newsweek. A recent article in Fast Company declared: “In the annals of Silicon Valley history, Nolan Bushnell’s name conjures up both brilliant success and spectacular failure. His two landmark achievements were founding Atari in 1972 – laying the groundwork for the entire video-game industry – and starting Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre in 1977. But there’s another highlight of Bushnell’s biography that has long gone undocumented: pioneer of the high-tech incubator.”

Bushnell began following the “Working Class” documentary series on Twitter last year. He told the series’ producers he believes classrooms that “look like business startups” – with technology and tools to inspire experiential learning – help encourage student engagement.

“If the student doesn’t want to come to school or is bored in school, it’s our fault,” he said. “We have to change what we’re doing. We have to open our eyes and say, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’ It’s going to be different for different kids. … We need to find that way.

“Some kids are going to want to learn math using the language of baseball, and other kids are going to want to learn math on the language of science or the language of statistics or the language of politics.”

The team is coached by Michael Cherry, creator of The Addventures of Plusman comic books, whose shirt declares his superhero's reliance on math to solve problems.

Penn College faculty member Edwin G. Owens agrees that students benefit from a varied approach to teaching mathematics.

“Most students who are struggling with math see letters and numbers; they don’t see what they represent,” he said. “A teacher can make math more interesting.”

“Working Class: Game On! Why Math Matters” features video from Penn College’s gaming and simulation program, which has gained widespread interest from video-game enthusiasts.

Faculty member Spyke M. Krepshaw says: “Parents hear the word gaming and they are like, ‘OK, they’re going to be playing ‘Call of Duty’ for the next four years,’ when in actuality … it’s not just gaming. … There’s also that ‘and simulation’ portion. … Gaming is for fun, simulation is for learning, but you’re using the same tools.”

Faculty colleague Jacob R. Miller agrees that gaming “has a lot of flash, gets a lot of publicity, but it’s not necessarily the largest part of the industry. The larger, more consistent, the more 9-to-5, blue-collar portion of the industry is actually in writing simulation software … training software.”

The documentary features a variety of “high tech” career options – from information technology to electronics and computer engineering – that are available to students who excel in math.

In today’s electronic devices, said electronics faculty member Edward J. Almasy, “There’s millions of calculations going on every second. You can’t physically see that. You can’t see gears turning … levers being pulled. You have to think abstractly, and math really helps you to develop that mindset. … Having a mathematical mind will help you to understand how things work.”

The film encourages students, parents and teachers to see the relevance of mathematics in practical applications and modern-day careers. Featured faculty agree that, in this technological age, math literacy is as important as reading literacy.

Penn College math educator Lauren A. Rhodes disputes the idea that not everyone is a math person.

“I don’t believe that we have certain abstract limitations designed into us,” she said. “We may have differences. … and we have things that are easier to learn and things that are harder to learn, but we can do it. We can learn them. Part of being an educator is finding a way that each of my students can learn.”

To film the climbers in action, Leigh scales a mountainside within the nature preserve, established in a section of the Appalachian Mountains, 90 miles north of New York City.

An experienced mountain climber and coach, who created a math superhero in “The Addventures of Plusman” comic books, explains, “Math and climbing are similar in that they’re both hard.”

Filmed at the famous Mohonk Preserve in the Shawangunk Mountains near New Paltz, New York, Michael Cherry tells “Working Class” viewers: “You often have to leave your comfort zone when you’re climbing, especially if you’re a beginning climber. … Same thing in a math problem. In a situation in class, you may initially feel very uncomfortable because you don’t know if you’ll succeed. … In math and in climbing, I think getting through those fears is really a key to being able to learn and being able to just let yourself explore.”

In addition to Cherry, Bushnell and Penn College faculty members Owens, Rhodes, Krepshaw, Miller and Almasy, the documentary features information technology student Jason Horton, of Coopersburg; Patricia Miller, a Williamsport Area High School math teacher who coordinates a Penn College dual enrollment program that allows students to earn college credits; and members of the Shawanpunk youth climbing team coached by Cherry.

WVIA Public Media will offer the premiere broadcast of “Working Class: Game On! Why Math Matters” on Thursday, Oct. 19, at 8 p.m. and will rebroadcast the documentary on Friday, Oct. 20, at 2 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 22, at noon.

The episode also is available for viewing on YouTube and on the series website. The website features a producer’s blog and educational resources selected to help K-12 teachers connect classroom activities with the documentary series.

"Working Class" The audience may follow “WorkingClassTVSeries” on Facebook and “workingclass_tv” on Twitter and share comments via social media.

The first two episodes in the documentary series earned Bronze Telly Awards in 2016 and 2017 and appeared on other Pennsylvania public television stations including WHYY in Philadelphia, WQED in Pittsburgh and WPSU in State College.

Executive producers for the series are Elaine J. Lambert, special assistant to the president for creative development and public relations at Penn College, and Tom Curra, president and CEO of WVIA Public Media. The series’ director and editor is Christopher J. Leigh. Former Penn College students involved in filming and editing this episode are Jeffrey A. Stanley, of Stewartstown, and Colin B. Helm, of Montoursville.

For more about Penn College, a national leader in applied technology education, email the Admissions Office or call toll-free 800-367-9222.

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Pennsylvania College of Technology is a special mission affiliate of The Pennsylvania State University