Dr. Pamela Gordon, Mathematics and Computer Science Teacher

New to the Mathematics Department this year, Pamela Gordon, Ph.D. joined The Ellis School from Lehigh University where she was a Graduate Teaching Fellow. Having always known she wanted to be a teacher, Dr. Gordon chose to continue her studies after receiving her undergraduate degree and went on to earn her master’s degree and her Ph.D. in mathematics. At Ellis, Dr. Gordon teaches Algebra 1, Algebra 2, Calculus, and a new required course for grade 9, Computer Science Seminar. Excited to share her love of mathematics and computer science with her students, Dr. Gordon reflects on her first year at an all-girls school and gives us a sneak peek inside her classroom.
What drew you to The Ellis School?
I was teaching at Lehigh University and I had a student from Pittsburgh who graduated from Ellis. I checked the website after she mentioned the School and there just happened to be a job posting. I had no experience with an all-girls school, but when I came for my interview, I loved it. Both the teachers in the mathematics department and the students stood out to me—they both made it seem like Ellis would be a really friendly work environment from the start. I remember the students being so engaged in the voluntary demo lesson and asking really good questions.

Why did you decide to pursue mathematics as a career?
When I was in second grade, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. Back then, I didn’t know that there was such a thing as a math teacher until my brother had one in fourth grade. I thought, “wow that’s great for me because I can’t spell!” From then on, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

In addition to mathematics classes, you teach computer science. What is your computer science class like?
The course is called Computer Science Seminar and it’s a new, required class for freshmen. We meet on CoLab days and the purpose is to provide an overview of computer programming. The class focuses on five different computer science career branches: web development, software development, machine learning, cybersecurity, and business information systems. When I was creating the curriculum, I wanted to show students that there are a lot of different types of careers affiliated with computer science. That way, after taking it in ninth grade, girls have the opportunity to decide if they’re interested in pursuing it further or not. The first cycle of students just completed the course and when surveyed, 57 percent said they’re interested in majoring in a computer science-related field in college.

How does the Computer Science Seminar empower girls to be intellectually ambitious in their future pursuits?
Intellectual ambition requires courage, and teachers have the opportunity to build that courage in their students. Computer science is an interesting subject in that many students do not start taking classes until college, and it can be intimidating to start something new at a time when the pressure to succeed is high. By introducing students to something new in a low-pressure situation, they have the opportunity to decide if it is something that they would like to pursue further. If students learn in ninth grade that computer science is not that intimidating, whether it is of interest to them or not, they build the courage to explore other new subjects like philosophy, psychology or biochemistry in college or as a hobby.

How do you think mathematics and computer science classes equip girls with the skills to be confident, independent learners?
As my students like to remind me, we cover some topics in mathematics classes that many adults seldom use. However, the process of mastering those topics teaches problem-solving skills that we use every day as teenagers and adults. We learn to look at a complicated problem, and instead of running away, we break it into smaller pieces, use prior knowledge to attack those pieces, and then build those smaller results into a solution to the original problem. They also learn to try a different approach if their first method does not turn out as expected. This need to self-correct appears even more prominently in computing where students debug code and often make decisions about the efficiency/simplicity balance of solutions. It has been fun to see the problem-solving progression of Upper School students this year. The ninth graders are just learning what tools and resources are available to them, and they often ask for teacher input. The seniors, however, know many of their resources and only seek teacher input when they have exhausted those resources. New challenges are increasingly met with determination instead of trepidation.

What is something that you are excited about in your classroom this year?
For me, it’s been the change from teaching in college to teaching in high school. Here, I get to see the girls regularly and really get to know them. I feel like I can impact them in ways beyond mathematics. It’s been really fun to get to know the girls and the School.

Did you have a teacher who had a particularly strong influence on your life? Can you tell me about him or her?
Angela Hare, the former chair of the mathematics department at Messiah College. She’s now the Dean of the School of Science, Engineering, and Health. I found myself referring back to her classes when I first started teaching. She was so good at keeping track of her students and encouraging us to take chances and apply for things outside of our comfort zone. When I went for my undergraduate degree, I had no thought of going to graduate school, but over the course of four years, she pushed me to consider it. Because of her, I saw graduate school as an opportunity to become a better teacher.

How would you describe yourself in three words?
Organized. Joyful. Analytical.

How do you spend your free time?
I read a lot, I bake—cookies are my specialty, particularly my ginger snaps. I also like to play soccer, my husband and I will play in pick-up games around the city when the weather is nice.

If you could interview anyone living or dead, who would it be and why?
William Wilberforce, he was an abolitionist and the initial advocate for ending slavery in Britain.

What is the last book you read?
I am currently reading What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell.