Confessions of a Math Lab TA

Photo by Kamrin Baker

By Kamrin Baker

It all starts on syllabus day of freshman year algebra. The teacher tells students they have a required amount of weekly hours to complete in the math lab on the second floor of the Durham Science Center, and a groan rolls across the classroom like a crowd doing the wave at a football game. Except in the math lab, there’s no music, no caffeine, no cell phones. No fun.

For math lab teaching assistant Bryanna Beckman, it’s a different story. Beckman says her job brings her a sense of accomplishment, both as an engineering student and a peer assistant. Simply put, yes, fun.

The requirements for students to work a TA job in the math lab are initially an A grade in Calculus I, as well as staying up to date with the coursework for every math class in the university system. Beckman spends her lab shifts checking students in and out at the front desk, working on her own coursework requirements, or walking around the room helping students solve problems.

“I live for the light bulb,” Beckman says. “The part I love the most is going around and helping people with their work. Sometimes it takes me a second to figure it out, but we work through it together and then we have that high-five moment at the end. That’s what’s important. That’s what makes me stay to help someone, even if it makes me late to my next class. I understand how frustrating it can be.”

Beckman is a civil engineering major and has always enjoyed math. Before she moved to Omaha three years ago to pursue her education at the Universityof Nebraska at Omaha, she lived in Lawrenceville, Georgia where she also tutored students in math at her high school. Her father was also a math lab TA when he attended UNO, so her family jokes that she’s a “math lab legacy.”

Beckman had a friend with a learning disability in high school and took him from C’s and D’s to A’s and B’s on tests and quizzes. Another student from the math lab once bumped into her family in public and told Beckman’s aunt that her tutor was the reason she made it through that semester of college.

“When people appreciate, not just the work I do, but themselves and what they’re capable of—that’s amazing to me,” Beckman said.

No matter the anecdotes behind the job, Beckman still fights off challenges. She says the hardest part of studying engineering is that she learned all her algebra techniques freshman year of high school and forgets those aspects of mathematics now that she’s in college. However, her job at the math lab keeps her “in the know” in all areas.

“As an engineer, it’s important to know how to communicate to all different levels of understanding,” Beckman said. “I know these concepts like the back of my hand now,and I can talk about them on the fly. That makes me really valuable in the work force, and it benefits thestudents I help in the math lab.”

The fluency of mathematics doesn’t come to everyone, though, and the math lab is prone to criticism. Whether it’s forgetting a pencil, not having the right calculator, or being stuck in those red rolling chairs for hours, students tend to get punchy behind the screen.

Beckman says one of the most crucial parts of her job is to remain calm, collected and encouraging. According to her, the most common complaints about the math lab is the time and commitment students are required to put in, as well as the idea that students are teaching themselves the material that they practice in MyMathLab, the online math program used at UNO.

“You can’t learn to fix a car by watching someone work on it. You learn by fixing the engine everyday,” Beckman says. “You need to do math to learn math. This is a quiet study space filled with resources that really forces students to buckle down and get their work done, and I get it. I’m a student, as well, with 16 credit hours, another job and my own life. But it is a priority for me to get students the best and fastest help on this campus.”

Beckman’s advice for math students at UNO is to get their assignments done as soon as possible, utilize their resources, and be mindful that the lab gets busiest towards the end of the week during lunch hours.

Students will most likely see Beckman throughout the semester with about 22 other tutors and some graduate TAs, as well. If she isn’t greeting students with a smile and a MavCard-grab at the front desk, she’ll probably be reciting from her memorized proctoring speech, which she says isthe “sassiest” part of her day. She even has a favorite line.

“Your cell phone cannot be used as a calculator,” Beckman says. “All electronic devices must now be turned off and put away. If your cell phone goes off during the test, you will be asked to submit your test and leave the math lab. This will count as one of your two attempts.”