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A new kind of math

March 2, 2010

BARAGA - It's tough to make a "one size fits all" curriculum in schools.

John Filpus, an instructor at Baraga Area Schools as well as High School Principal Dennis Ruuspakka are doing something about that, starting next year.

They are offering a building trades course that will meet a fourth-year math requirement for students, helping students that might struggle through a math class during their senior year.

"It's offered to Baraga and L'Anse students," Filpus said. "They can take one or two years and with the math that's taught it would count as a fourth-year math requirement.

"It's not a math credit, but it does meet the math requirement."

The course can also count toward college credit at Northern Michigan University or Gogebic Community College.

"The main thing is, because not all students like to be in a classroom, that we go out on-site and learn the math hands-on," Filpus said. "It's a much better application to learn it, and they can better understand it when we do it in the classroom and on the job site.

"You get to see how it works and it connects with students a lot easier."

The class offers a mix of math, building skills and even some job-searching skills.

"We start the class learning about resums, then we do job applications and learn how to get builders licenses and then we go into estimating materials for building a home, starting with footing, pouring materials for footings, slab and foundation walls," Filpus said.

"Then we estimate for framing and we talk about the terminology of all of this."

Discussions dive into the thickness of walls, using standard layouts, stud spacing and rafter layout.

"This all requires ... math in order to find the finished numbers," Filpus said. "You need to convert decimals to fractions, know your angles, trigonometry, cross multiply, deducing the ride and knowing your opposite angles."

The resulting math ends with storage sheds, garages, remodeled houses, ice shanties, re-roofed houses, saunas and many other small projects that have been completed over the years.

In order for the school to use this as a requirement, Filpus had to have his plans reviewed with a licensed math teacher, and they also worked with a program at Ferris State University to get final approval.

He worked hand-in-hand with Principal Ruuspakka to put the whole thing together.

"The principal and I have been working since summertime to get this," Filpus said. "We've been teaching these lessons for years, but Dennis has been there to help me rework the lessons, and he's really helped me fine tune them for more of a math focus."

The resulting lessons are very similar to what's been taught, and it all starts with a simple plan.

"We pick a house design and we use that as an example throughout the entire class," Filpus said. "When the students get assessed they have another house design that they have to figure out the materials for."

So far, reactions from students has been very positive.

"The juniors that I've spoke to this year are very excited, they can't wait to get into the class next year to be able to fulfill this requirement," Filpus said.

Filpus said it's also very promising for the security of a program that often finds itself among the first things eliminated.

"With the way they are cutting programs across the state, this is just one thing that helps keep my program alive," Filpus said.

"It should keep my enrollment high so I won't have to worry about this program being cut, because you can almost qualify it as a core class when they count it as a requirement."

The requirement will begin next school year.

Michael H. Babcock can be reached at



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