Mr. Sparkman Teacher makes math fun

Able to draw buffalo, wolves and airplanes with ease, writer of the smash hit “I don’t care what happens at ‘a’” and a master storyteller, Mr. Stuart Sparkman, resident Ames High math teacher, has already begun to leave his mark. In the four short years since he moved to Ames from Oregon, Sparkman has already transformed Room 16 into a magical haven where math is *gasp* fun, or at least virtually painless. The following is a description of a “typical” 5 minutes in Sparkman-land: A student asks for help on a Calculus problem. “I love this problem,” says Sparkman, wise teacher. “This is a great problem.” “Why?” asks a student. “Because it has airplanes,” Sparkman says, drawing a spattering of laughs. “When I was in 5th grade or so, I spent a lot of time drawing airplanes. And who didn’t? Get out your airplane drawing kits.” Just like that the students are set to work, drawing airplanes as part of a diagram needed to solve the problem. Not only does Sparkman have a real love for learning, but he also shows that he cares, making it a habit to ask students how their day went. Patient and firm, yet also infectiously enthusiastic, he seems the perfect model of a teacher. Yet in his high school days, even Mr. Sparkman had no idea he’d end up teaching kids math. “I had a problem with [deciding what I wanted to do],” Sparkman said. “I didn’t have a clear idea of what career I wanted. I was getting kind of worried [because] all of my friends had an idea of what they wanted to do. “ “I went to college thinking I’d study math or German and ended up getting a degree in psychology,” Sparkman said. “My high school didn’t offer it, but in college I took a psych class, liked it, took some more, really liked it, became a department assistant and before I knew it had a degree.” Even though this was an unexpected turn in his career, there was still something that didn’t change. “I loved math,” Sparkman said. “I could’ve done engineering or gone into computer science, but I wanted to work with people; I didn’t want to work at some computer terminal all day. Teaching was just something I thought I’d try. If I wasn’t any good or didn’t like it, psych was my back-up. And after all these years, it’s still my back-up.” After teaching math in Oregon for over 20 years, the Sparkmans moved to Ames after Mrs. Sparkman got a job offer here. Although Iowa is pretty different, one thing that hasn’t changed since the Sparkmans moved is their hobby of bird-watching. “We’ve traveled all over the place to see birds,” Sparkman said. “Our best trip was Australia; the birds there are like nowhere else. We’ve been to Trinidad and Tobago, Oaxaca, Colema, all over the U.S. and Canada, Scandinavia, and Germany.” Even when he’s on vacation, Mr. Sparkman still has time to think about his students. “Since I’ve moved to Ames, I’ve had this classroom with no windows,” Sparkman said. “That’s mostly why I bought posters [from places I’ve traveled]. It feels less like a prison with some posters.” “I think the world would be better if everyone could experience the way people in other countries live,” Sparkman said. “It broadens their mind. That’s one reason I think the Uganda Project is so cool because it gets kids out there to experience the outside world. It’s exactly the kind of experience I think high school kids should have.”