Meet a Teacher Who Proves that Math-Makes-it-Work

  • May 28, 2015


Chris Oonk, 27, had been teaching engineering at Ashley Ridge High School in Charleston, South Carolina for less than a year when he and the students in his engineering club decided to enter Samsung’s Solve for Tomorrow Contest, which is dedicated to encouraging students to solve local problems using STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).

And solve they did, developing an early warning system designed to help drivers navigate their way around flooded streets in their coastal city (watch the project video, below). The project has earned Oonk and his students a number of honors, including the DIRECTV Math Makes-it-Work prize, which includes $25,000 toward further development of their technology. They hope to have an app for the early warning system next year.

Chris was kind enough to share a little about himself with us, along with some of what he’s learned along the way to winning the prize:

Chris Oonk: I’m originally from Rochester, NY and attended Clarkson University where I majored in Mechanical Engineering. During my junior year of school I started tutoring others in math and discovered my passion for teaching. After I finished my undergraduate degree I went on to get a Master’s degree in Mathematics Education. This is my first year teaching at Ashley Ridge High School and third overall. I consider myself truly lucky to be working with such a great group of faculty, staff, and students.

When I arrived at the school, I immediately noticed a passion for engineering in many of my students and an unmet need for a club/extracurricular activity to allow that passion to flourish. I started an engineering club that was made up of students from various grade levels and backgrounds. We began looking for a project that would pique the interest of the students and allow us to work toward the betterment of our community.

The engineering classes offered at Ashley Ridge are part of the Project Lead the Way (PLTW) curriculum, and I receive weekly email blasts from PLTW regarding news, events, project opportunities, etc. It was here that I first noticed the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest, and the students jumped at the opportunity to participate.

How did you arrive at the decision to take-on the challenge of flood warning?

I moved down to Charleston this past August after teaching in Columbia, SC the previous two years. It didn’t take me long to realize that flooding was a serious issue for this coastal city. Two weeks after I moved I found myself driving through a flooded area with no idea of how to navigate around it. Looking down a couple of the streets, I saw water more than half way up the tires of the cars unfortunate enough to be parked there.

It was from this experience that the students and I decided that developing a system capable of detecting where flooding would occur, warning motorists, and then safely rerouting them would be an invaluable tool. As a large tourist destination, there are also a number of drivers that are unfamiliar with the flooding issues that Charleston faces. It was for this reason we determined that the rerouting feature would be an integral part of our system.

Once that decision was made, what were the group dynamics, i.e., distribution of work and responsibility? And what role did you play as teacher throughout this process?

The students divided themselves into three main groups: Construction, Programming, and Website/Phone Applications. Since it was a small group there was some overlap between responsibilities. As a teacher, I tried to serve as a guide and give them as much autonomy as possible. With an open-ended problem such as this, there is no one correct answer, so I was able to give them the freedom to explore different possibilities.

Any interesting anecdotes from this journey? Was there an “a-ha!” moment for the students?

One thing I learned for team projects going forward is to always have snacks on hand. There’s a pretty strong correlation between food and productivity. I could also probably write a book on the different uses of duct tape.

The students were very innovative when it came to dealing with our financial constraints. We had our original design, we looked at our budget, and then we basically had to replace every component with a cheaper one. When it came to simulating rainfall or waterproofing our sensor, I was amazed at their ingenuity and the solutions that they developed.

 How has your experience with these students affected you, and also them?

One of the great things about this project is that it is a completely different dynamic from the general classroom environment. As a team we all were able to share in the triumphs, laughs, and learning that occur when a close knit group spends countless hours working together on a project. We all shared in the frustrations and setbacks, but learned how to overcome them to keep moving forward. Being able to observe this team of students from different backgrounds come together to accomplish great things and also form lasting friendships was a truly eye-opening and rewarding experience.

I believe this project allowed students to grow both academically and individually. The team played off of each others’ strengths and weaknesses well, and each one was always willing to help a fellow student with any problems they were having. Students also adapted to different roles and responsibilities very well, since so many of them were used to having the lead role on group projects.

And what about the flood-warning project, where does it stand now, and what is its future?

Currently we are working on optimizing our device and improving our website and phone app. Our hope is to get our design to a point where it is practical, cost-efficient, and able to be implemented in downtown Charleston. Beyond that we hope to share our design in other areas facing similar issues with flooding. We owe a big debt of gratitude to DIRECTV and the Math Makes it Work prize, because none of this would be possible without their support.

 DIRECTV is a big believer in STEM learning, especially with regard to math as a basis for organized thinking and problem-solving. What are your thoughts on the importance of STEM, and especially math, for today’s students and their futures?

Looking ahead, knowledge of STEM principles will be invaluable for today’s students regardless of what endeavors they pursue. The global marketplace is becoming more and more technologically driven, yet the type of organized thinking and problem-solving found in STEM areas seem to be receiving less emphasis than ever before. The shortage of students interested in these areas stems from a variety of issues, from a lack of awareness of STEM careers and few opportunities to work on real-world problems and social stigmas (such as only male “nerds” or “geeks” are interested in math).

I believe students need to be encouraged and challenged in the STEM areas at an early age and given opportunities to work on projects that are meaningful to them. I am truly thankful that DIRECTV and Samsung recognize the importance of STEM and have given the opportunity of a lifetime to my students. It is through projects such as this that students will develop an understanding and appreciation of STEM and be able to “Solve for Tomorrow.”


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 —Stephen Vincent D’Emidio