Distinctive Partnership Offers New Paradigm for Math Education

By Helen Horwitz

Pictured Above (left to right): 2017 IEEE-USA President Karen Pedersen, Desiree A. Awiszio, Olga Serebrennikov and 2016 IEEE-USA President Peter Eckstein at the 2017 IEEE-USA Awards Ceremony in Charlotte, N.C.

“Innumeracy” is the mathematical equivalent of not being able to read ” and with some exceptions, it’s safe to say that America’s pre-university students generally suffer from a serious case of it.

Global studies that evaluate the math and science achievements of young people consistently rank students in the United States well behind many other countries. (See accompanying sidebar.)


U.S. students’ academic achievement still lags’ Reports Pew Research Center

In its latest study of the math and science achievements of pre-university students around the world, The Pew Research Center issued a detailed report on 15 February that places American students an unimpressive 38th out of 71 countries in math, and 24th in science.

Based in Washington, D.C., The Pew Research Center is a non-partisan, non-profit think tank that provides information on social issues, public opinion and demographic trends shaping the world. The organization also conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, and other empirical social science research.


The full report on where students in the United States rank when compared with their peers in other countries is at:

Such rankings for U.S. students explain why the achievements of dedicated engineering professionals like Desiree Awiszio, and expert K-12 math educators like Olga Serebrennikov, deserve attention. Their partnership offers a new paradigm for how engineers and math educators can work together ” not only to help combat innumeracy among pre-college students ” but also to inspire enthusiasm and self-confidence. Since early 2015, when the two first teamed up, they’ve been providing talented math students in the Worcester, Mass., area with advanced skills. Moreover, the two are doing it in an environment that introduces the youngsters to real-world engineering.

At the 2016 IEEE-USA Awards and Recognition Ceremony held recently in Charlotte, N.C., Awiszio and Serebrennikov were honored with the 2016 IEEE-USA K-12 STEM Literacy Educator-Engineer Partnership Award. The citation notes their “collaboration supporting the development of K-12 student math skills, and its application in engineering.”

Given their mutual interests in math and science education, the alliance between Awiszio and Serebrennikov was predestined: Worcester is a mid-sized (population 181,000) city in Central Massachusetts, with a thriving technological community. Local professional networking events provided opportunities for the two women to meet and begin sharing their ideas about enhancing math and science education for children.

Desiree Awiszio is a longtime, independent consulting engineer, an IEEE Senior Member, and the current chair of the IEEE Women in Engineering affinity group in Worcester County. She has a special passion for encouraging pre-university students to explore engineering as a career, and frequently serves as a judge at school science fairs and robotic competitions. In addition, Awiszio is an active alumna at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), her alma mater, where she mentors and advises students on engineering career paths. She’s also involved with the IEEE Student Branch.

Olga Serebrennikov, who emigrated from Russia in 1992 with her husband, Boris, has two electrical engineering master’s degrees: from Moscow Technical University and from WPI. After working for almost 20 years as a software engineer, in she realized her goal to become an educator in 2011, when she and Boris founded MathAltitude, the independently owned K-12 after-school enrichment program she now operates in Worcester. Honed while she was a WPI teaching assistant and working for other after-school programs, her teaching philosophy is simple: Instead of memorization and repetitious drills, youngsters are encouraged to think logically and analytically, and to appreciate the beauty of math.


Together, Awiszio and Serebrennikov planned and organized two special programs in 2016, designed to inform and excite middle-school students enrolled at MathAltitude about engineering, and to introduce them to advanced skills engineers commonly use.

Recalling her first presentation to a group of 20 MathAltitude students on an evening in April 2016, Awiszio still marvels at the youngsters’ abilities. “These students are learning math three levels beyond their grade at school, and they asked mature questions ” some, in my experience, at the level of college freshmen,” she says.

During the event, Awiszio, whose engineering expertise includes hardware design, also explained circuit board designs. During an interactive session on logic design fundamentals, she encouraged students to participate by following logic values through combinational logic and to providing answers to Boolean logic expressions in Karnaugh maps.

The second session, in November 2016, was a “WPI Night at MathAltitude” and featured several IEEE Student Branch student members. They talked about their college experiences and how they prepared for university studies, showed a slide presentation, and also gave interactive demonstrations on current systems. To the youngsters’ delight, a computer science major explained Tesla Coils ” and then used his coil and setup to light the letters “IEEE” in colorful LEDs.

Parents who attended the event received a special bonus: Christopher Coulter of Bay State Savings Bank in Worcester discussed various strategies to help finance a college education.

Special evening and weekend programs for MathAltitude students are an important component of the Serebrennikovs’ approach to their enrichment program. “Teaching math is our top priority, but we believe students achieve more when they are part of a school community where we personally know every student and their family,” explains Olga Serebrennikov. “We are building a community of learners, not merely tutoring to a score sufficient for an elite college. That’s a side effect ” but not our primary goal.”

In addition to their weekly enrichment classes, students take part in math- and engineering-related activities that enable them to see real-world math applications. For example, after watching a video of The Imitation Game, the 2014 motion picture about the British mathematician Alan Turing’s work to break Germany’s Enigma Code during World War II, a group of MathAltitude students built and tested a prototype of the Enigma machine.

Originally from Moscow, Serebrennikov says her parents inspired her interest in math at an early age. Her father was a mathematician, and her mother, who had an economics degree, worked in a physics lab. After the Serebrennikovs immigrated, they were disheartened by what they saw students learning ” or not learning ” in American public education. For their MathAltitude program, Serebrennikov uses a European education approach. It involves more word problems, and more intensive study, than can been taught in the classroom during a school year.

Desiree Awiszio traces her lifelong fascination with technology to watching her father, a mechanical engineer, tinkering in his home workshop. After graduating from WPI ” “summa cum laude,” she proudly notes ” she was employed for 10 years by Digital Equipment Corporation, and then decided to go out on her own.

“By becoming an independent consulting engineer, I knew that I’d have more variety and better opportunities,” she says. Today, after 23 years of running her own business, she is a respected hardware architect and design development engineer, with clients throughout the country. Her wide-ranging expertise includes custom chip design and development for commercial, medical and defense applications.

For Awiszio, teaching the next generation about math and science is about encouraging youngsters to see how mathematics is linked to everything. It’s also about helping them to think outside the proverbial box ” whether she is serving as a judge at a science fair, advising an engineering student at WPI, or partnering with an after-school math enrichment program like Math Altitude.

“Math and science are connected to everything we do,” says Desiree Awiszio. “Demonstrating this connection to young people, and helping them gain the confidence to do well in math, is critically important. We engineering professionals need to get involved ” and mentor students, so they can recognize the connection between what they learn in school, and its real-world application.”

Olga Serebrennikov concludes, “Not all children will, or should, become mathematicians, but our goal as educators is to equip them with the best possible education. When presented through the meaning and links between different topics, Math is full of fun, enjoyable to master, and joyfully rewarding.”

Helen Horwitz is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. She was with IEEE from 1991 through 2011, the first nine as Staff Director, IEEE Corporate Communications.

Helen Horwitz

Helen Horwitz was an award-winning freelance writer in Albuquerque, N.M. She was with IEEE from 1991 through 2011, the first nine as Staff Director, IEEE Corporate Communications.

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