Math teacher embraced technology

Recently retired college professor Mary Ann (Corbo) Connors led a career that is internationally respected and was built around her passion for using technology as a tool to teach math.

Connors’ advocacy for educational technology began during her first year of teaching at Altoona Area. It was the same year when the last of the 15 consecutive unmanned U.S. lunar missions failed again to photograph the moon’s terrain, 1964.

“We had a computer installed in the basement of the high school. It had to be in a temperature controlled, enormous room, and it filled the room. There was a faculty meeting that year, and the tech people from G&E invited any teacher to learn. I volunteered with some others. Every day after school we learned everything we could about the computer.”

Soon after she learned the computer programming language, the 22-year-old teacher introduced it to her algebra students, who would generate solutions to algebra equations by entering instructions into the computer.

“They learned a computer could do only what you instruct it to do, everything has to be perfect,” she said.

With a career spanning six decades, Connors devoted her teaching career to using technology to help students develop an appreciation of math.

Connors is an Altoona native and a 1959 graduate of Altoona Catholic High School, now Bishop Guilfyole.

Her career blossomed from teaching third grade at St. Leo’s School in Altoona while an undergraduate at Seton Hill in the early 1960s to teaching mathematics at Altoona Area Senior High School, then at the U.S. Department of Defense Dependent High School in Hanau, Germany. Perhaps the highlight of her career was that she was among the first group of civilian women mathematics professors to teach at West Point in 1997.

“I went where God led me,” she said over the phone from her home in Massachusetts. She approached her professional life the way she approaches math, one step at a time.

In May, Connors retired from Westfield State University, Mass. as a professor of mathematics and coordinator of the mathematics teacher preparation program coordinator.

“I dedicated my life to helping students like mathematics,” she said on the phone from her Massachusetts home. “Mathematics are the foundation to everything. Knowledge of fractals [a concept of modeling structures with numbers] has advanced everything from movies to human health,” she said.

And calculus – “Without calculus we would not have advanced to the moon.”

Connors has contributed to a variety of national publications and has presented at many conferences and seminars from the local to international level.

Since her May retirement, she has been honored by her undergraduate school, Seton Hill University, as an alumni leader.

“Dr. Connors has influenced and educated countless students in her six-decade career in mathematics education,” a Seton Hill press release stated.

After her first two years teaching at Altoona Area, Connors continued her own education, earning a science grant to pursue a masters at Notre Dame. She was among the first group of laywomen to earn a master’s degree in mathematics from the University of Notre Dame in 1967.

She went on to receive a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1995. Connors’ passion for communicating the importance of mathematics to students is manifest in her doctorate dissertation titled “An Analysis of Student Achievement and Attitudes by Gender in Computer-Integrated and Non-Computer-Integrated First Year Mainstream College Calculus Courses.”

In the mid 1990s, about the time she began teaching at West Point, calculators emerged that illustrated practical applications of the complex math concepts.

Over the phone, she spoke enthusiastically of seeing students able to comprehend Newton’s law of cooling, for example, with the help of devices attached to graphic calculators.

“Visualization gave students so much insight. I wanted to do everything I could to help. Many students fear calculus, but its all understanding it one step at a time,” she said.

She carried her respected reputation in the academic world with her to West Point in 1997, said Col. Jerry Kobylski.

“We didn’t have computers back then to help us visualize math concepts like we do today. We did have the calculators. Her knowledge and ability with programming the calculator was tremendous. She was instrumental in bringing out new methods of visualizing math concepts in our programs.”

While at West Point, Connors continued to do presentations at other universities and people would say, “Where are you from? West Point, oh, where is that?” It was great having a faculty member with such accomplishments outside of West Point,” Kobylski said.

She taught at West Point until 2001.

“She came in with no military background, but in no time she was one of our leaders. She fully immersed herself in cadet life, meeting with them outside of class. She was an incredible team player. She burned the midnight oil if she had something to do to help students. That was her persona, always helping others.”

Connors has been married to her husband, Edward Connors, for 43 years. They have two grown children, James and Kathleen. The husband and wife care for Connors’ 92-year-old mother Josie (Carnicella) Corbo, a native of Altoona, who lives with them in Massachusetts. Connors’ late father Dominick Corbo of Altoona, retired as a machinist inspector from the Pennsylvania Rail Road Juniata Shops and also was a professional barber.

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.