Math tutor: 'It's kind of like a fun puzzle'

by Tracy Kalytiak  |   

Alayna Rupert tutors a student in the UAA Math Lab. (Photo by Tracy Kalytiak/UAA)

Alayna Rupert tutors student Saharra Mckee in the UAA Math Lab. (Photo by Tracy Kalytiak/University of Alaska Anchorage)

Alayna Rupert was still barely more than a toddler when she had her first experience with math.

"My mom was a math major, for a little while anyway," she said. "When I was little, apparently I would chew on her calculator and the corners of her calculus textbook."

When Alayna started attending school, she'd receive math homework, "and every day after class my mom would teach me really basic algebra problems with M&Ms," she said. "I kind of learned to love math that way."

Now, Alayna, 20, is a UAA student who spends 28 hours a week, Monday through Thursday, working as one of the tutors in UAA's Math Lab. For the past two years, Alayna has guided struggling students through the intricacies of such things as factoring polynomials, solving linear equations and untangling exponents.

Why does she love math enough to spend so much time with it in addition to hefting her math classes and their associated homework?

"Math makes sense," she said. "It's built on a really firm logical foundation and I don't think you get that with English or even history really, to some extent. I just like how black and white it is and it all makes sense. Also, it's kind of like a fun puzzle!"

'Look at the problem, see what you can do'

Students taking prealgebra and beginning algebra classes are the ones Alayna says most often seek her tutoring assistance in the Math Lab, located in Monserud Hall.

What aspects of math do they usually seek help with?

"It's kind of all over the map," Alayna said. "If there's a concept taught, there are students who want help with it."

Before coming to UAA, she tutored her little sister and tutored for the educational testing service at her previous school, West High.

What can people with less of an affinity for numbers do to increase their chance of success in math?

"One of the things at beginning levels is writing down all the steps," Alayna said. "It really helps to make sense and keep everything organized-this is what I've done, this is what I need to do. Follow your nose. It helps make math more intuitive if you're just looking at a problem and say, where am I going with this, to look at the problem, see what you can do."

While Alayna has long loved math, she says she hasn't always breezed through her math classes.

"I didn't 'get' math for three years-in sixth, seventh and eighth grade," she said. "I got the basics, just didn't get how it applied. Then in ninth grade, suddenly math started to all make sense. And when I took calculus, algebra really made sense."
Daniel Bonin, manager of the UAA Math Lab, and Tara Smith, who was then the Lab's academic coordinator, were involved in hiring Alayna two years ago.
"We pretty much knew we were going to hire her just from her application, because she is an academic superstar," Bonin said. "She finished high school early, founded the math club here at UAA and only needed two years to finish her math degree. She had en enthusiastic letter of recommendation from an English teacher that portrayed a very well-rounded individual.
"I remember her telling us that she was taking Partial Differential Equations, an upper-division math elective, as a sort of teenage rebellion against her mom, who told a 4-year-old Alayna that it was extremely difficult," Bonin said. "We try to find people who really enjoy mathematics to work as tutors and Alayna clearly did. She turned out to also be very kind and patient when working with students, which is a nice bonus."

'Bad Alayna'

Math drives Alayna's life, she admits.

"I have other things I do but not quite so much as math," she said. "Academically, math definitely wins or at least I would like it to. I was a bad Alayna and I saved all my GERs for summers, so in the summers I don't get to take any math classes. But this last year I just did four math classes both semesters, which was great."

What's her second-favorite class?

"Uhhhhh," she said with a laugh, before continuing,  "I like history. I like science. I like chemistry. I don't really care for physics. Physics to me is like those teasing math problems you hear about where it's like, I've got four apples and six oranges, calculate the distance from the sun. I'm really big into pure math."

She joked, "To be honest, I kind of think of science and engineering as torturing my beautiful math, bending it to their will and enslaving it."

What are her plans after graduation? She says she would like just to do math, rather than teach or  "go to the dark side" by entering physics or engineering.

"If I were to teach, I think I'd rather do calc[ulus]," she said. "It's fun. It's a little bit like magic. There's a concept called a limit, which is pretty much the magic behind calculus. Say you were trying to find the area under a curve. You would make rectangles from the x-axis to the curve."

Someone calculating the areas of those rectangles and adding them up, she said, would have a pretty good approximation of the area under the curve.

"But, it would be better if you used rectangles with a smaller width," Alayna explained. "With limits we can let the width of our rectangles approach zero. So, when we use calculus to find the area under a curve, we are basically adding up infinitely many rectangles with no width. And if that's not magic, I don't know what is."

Math exists everywhere in Alayna's world, in almost everything, even in the stitches of her knitting-"I was thinking, how could I incorporate math into my knitting," she said. "You can take letters and encode them into, say, Base 2. There are two basic stitches in knitting so you can create messages in your socks. You can encode other bases if you use different colors. I'm currently working on a pair of leggings-they're purple and have the fundamental theory of calculus knitted into them, not that you would ever know it to look at them."

She sees math everywhere in nature, both when she hikes and closer to home.

"A friend of mine had what she called a fractal plant, a Romanesco broccoli plant," Alayna said. "She ate it before I had an opportunity to see it, but she also had artichokes. Artichokes and pineapples are things where you can clearly see spirals. The number of left-leaning spirals and the number of right-leaning spirals are consecutive numbers in the Fibonacci sequence. So I told her she had mathematically perfect artichokes!"

Written by Tracy Kalytiak, UAA Office of University Advancement

Creative Commons License "Math tutor: 'It's kind of like a fun puzzle'" is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.