Running the numbers

Oct 13, 2006

Suzanne Larsen gave up a career at General Motors to help college students break through their math anxiety.

When Suzanne Larsen '99 goes to work now, she's not on the track at the General Motors Proving Grounds doing statistical analysis anymore. The Kettering grad is still in a lab setting, but this lab is the mathematics lab at Mott Community College in Flint.

Instead of running the numbers on test engines, Larsen is running numbers with college students. An Applied Mathematics major herself, today she works with students on their math anxiety or helps them build up their math skills to continue their education.

"I love it," Larsen said of her career change. "It's my fourth year at MCC, and I just got tenure," she added. Larsen said she is fulfilling her need to help people in what she calls the "best place to work. (In teaching) you see how you help people," she said, "I get that feedback from people preparing to transfer to a four-year college, to people retraining for the job market or people who just want to be better at math to help their kids with their homework.

"One of the big programs here is nursing," she said of MCC, "and in that field you have to fully understand ratio and proportion and be good at problem solving, and for that you need good basic math skills," she said.

Her favorite success story is about the woman who was such a "math-phobe" that she hyperventilated before a test. "She is currently pursuing a teaching degree and has made mathematics her minor she loves it so much," said Larsen, "she can't imagine why she was so afraid before."

"The challenge for me is to break down what comes easy for me, so the student understands it," Larsen said. "About 50 percent of my students are in developmental math," she added, "I have to make it relevant to all skill levels, to present math using different education methodologies to bridge the gap." To do that, Larsen said she and other MCC math faculty use activity-based classes with a lot of hands-on and group work.

"It's a different world than Kettering," said the Milford native, referring to the advanced math required for almost all degree programs at Kettering. "But I find I love it. I feel I'm doing something to genuinely help people improve their life skills," said Larsen. "Going into teaching was the best decision I ever made. This is where I'm meant to be and what I'm meant to be doing," she said.

She cut her teeth on teaching while still working for GM. "I had earned my master's degree from Purdue while working for GM," she said, "and I began teaching professional development classes on how to use statistical software. Then the MCC job came up." Despite not having other teaching experience Larsen was hired as a Mathematics faculty at the community college.

"They wanted someone with a background in industry," she explained, "and Dr. McCartin wrote me a three-page letter of recommendation - that is probably what got me the job," she joked. Dr. Brian McCartin, professor of Applied Mathematics, was Larsen's independent study adviser for her project using advanced math to price stock options.

"She presented our joint work before the Mathematical Association of America," said McCartin. The work was later published in the professional journal "Applied Mathematics and Computation." "This work has had an international impact," McCartin said, "it lead to inquiries from the Royal Bank of Canada and resulted in a master's thesis by a student in South Africa and a Ph.D. thesis by a student in Mauritius," he added.

Larsen blushes at McCartin's praise of her skills, but admits to being a bit of a perfectionist and an extremist. "When I do something, I put everything into it," she said. For example, just before graduation from Kettering in 1999, Larsen took up running as a hobby. "I wanted something to do outside of school and to get in shape," she said.

She started with what she calls a cheap pair of shoes. As those wore out she began researching running shoes and entered a small local race. "Then I was hooked," she said "and I pushed myself to get better. I actually met my husband at a race, and he worked with me to improve my performance.

His efforts paid off. She not only married him, she placed 14th overall in the 2006 Crim Festival of Races and was the fourth U.S. woman runner to cross the finish line in the 10-mile race event.

"Now I'm pretty competitive about running," she admitted. Because of a summer knee surgery it was the first Crim race her husband Eric Larsen, a runner since age 12, had missed since first running it in 1984. He was there to cheer on his favorite runner, however. "Eric is a good balance for me," said Larsen, "I'm all or nothing, he steers me back to the middle."

Her enthusiasm for running caught the attention of the running community in Fenton, where she and Eric live. Through connections with running friends Larsen got involved with the Men's and Women's cross country teams at Fenton High School. The regular coach, Todd Mills, is serving as a reservist in the military, so Larsen agreed to help out the interim coach.

She tries to keep her competitive nature in check with the students but said "it's almost worse watching them compete. It stresses me out because I can't control their performance - they have to do it themselves."

But she loves the connections she has made. "Now when I'm running near my home cars will drive by and I hear 'Hey Ms. Larsen' from one of the kids I help coach," she said. "Life is at a good place right now for me."

Written by Dawn Hibbard