Patricia Kassis is HPA’s Upper School math department chair and teaches AP Calculus AB, Algebra 2 Trigonometry, Astronomy, and Physical Oceanography. She coaches Ka Makani diving and competed in one-meter and three-meter springboard diving as a student-athlete at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When she’s not doing handstands or cooking, Kassis can be found reading the Hitchhiker’s Guide series of books or mowing, her favorite chore. She earned her B.S. at Willamette University and an M.S. at MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and she still occasionally volunteers on research vessels.
What fostered a love of math and/or science for you?
I am not sure. I guess I wonder why EVERYONE doesn’t love math and science. I’ve read a few articles suggesting that sports turn kids on to science, and that idea resonates with me. But I also have always loved games and puzzles, and as a kid I saw math and science as the “puzzley” part of school. As an adult, of course, I honor the more nuanced puzzles you find throughout literature and the humanities as well.
They say math is a language. How do you help students learn to speak it?
Math is a language, and it’s the easiest language! It only has about six verbs: to equal, to be greater than, and so forth. So on a literal level, I talk about how equations are math sentences, and some math expressions are meaningful but aren’t sentences. (“Sally is intriguing.” is like “y=13,” and “a crisp autumn breeze” is like “7sinx”). In a broader sense, good mathematicians are like good language learners—the subject becomes intuitive, the work flows more easily, useful patterns emerge, and getting your point across with simple vocabulary leads to better expression with more nuance. But I think I’m sidestepping the question … how do I help students learn to speak it? I hope I do so the same way anyone learns language—through practice. And especially through practice that tolerates errors.
Do you have a favorite equation or algorithm?
There are two triangles that get used a great deal in math, and if you know their angles and the ratios of the side lengths, you can determine trigonometric functions of many angles in a heartbeat. I don’t have any tattoos, and I tell my students that if I ever got a tattoo, it would be of those two triangles. By year’s end, my students call them “the tattoo triangles.” Of course I’m not getting the tattoos—if I bend my arm, a straight line segment would become a curve—so it’s all better left in my imagination.
Is HPA a good place to study astronomy? (Leading question!)
The best! In my semester class, we’ll see the Milky Way with bare eyes; host an astronomer in our classroom who will show us spectra firsthand; meet the Keck Observatory’s chief scientist and learn from him about measuring distances in space; visit a museum of Hawaiian culture and astronomy; and sit in on a night of world-class observing, also at Keck.
You’re an HPA parent, too! What do you hope your daughters will get out of HPA?
Socially, I hope they learn to occupy the right space, to give and take in the right proportions, to look adults in the eye and ask them important questions. Academically, I hope they are pushed, made to redo it until it’s better, and leave HPA with many academic options open to them.