DURHAM – For 12 years, Philip Rash has helped some of the state’s most promising high schoolers tackle some of the world’s toughest math challenges. As a teacher at the NC School of Science and Mathematics, he has taught everything from precalculus to combinatorics (the study of countable discrete structures).
Along the way, Rash has demonstrated exactly the kind of wide-ranging intellectual curiosity and engagement NCSSM encourages in every student. With three degrees from Western Carolina University and a National Board certification in teaching, he sees a clear link between lifelong learning and effective teaching.
Under Rash, NCSSM has emerged as a force in mathematics competition. He helps organize and promote statewide competitions and is known for leading his own students in international challenges. Last month, he took a team of NCSSM students to the Singapore International Mathematics Challenge, where they faced off against more than 60 top schools from around the world.
International competition in math goes way beyond formulas and numbers — students have to tackle a complex, real-world problem and craft a presentation for the judges.
In 2015, for instance, students in the Singapore Challenge were asked to imagine themselves as tourists in a foreign country, with limited time and a limited budget to see the maximum number of attractions. They had to design algorithms to weigh different variables — mode of transportation, time on site, cost, etc. — before moving on to rethink the entire transportation network to make tourist travel more efficient.
This is not your typical high school math problem.
Fortunately, Rash is not your typical high school math teacher. He drives a custom-converted electric vehicle, an old Dodge Dakota he retrofitted himself. It took about two years, he says, and he figured out most of it from watching instructional videos online.
He’s also an enthusiastic pilot, spending much of his free time aloft in a four-seat Piper Cherokee 140.
NCSSM offers a summer “mini-term,” giving students and instructors the chance to explore something completely outside the traditional curriculum. Rash teaches a mini-term class on aviation, using it as a chance to delve into the mathematical principles embedded in flight technology and also share the raw joy of taking to the skies.
“At what other high school would I get a week to just talk about flying with the students?” he said.
One of the joys of teaching NCSSM students is that they leap at such opportunities. Rash fits right into that culture, pouring his energy into extracurricular math competitions, national presentations, and mentoring students. That dedication helped earn him a UNC Board of Governors Faculty Teaching Award for 2016.
For years, he has been a dedicated participant in NCSSM’s Step Up to STEM summer program, which brings in rising 9th-graders from across the state to build new skills in math and science.
“Dr. Rash is an amazing teacher!” one student wrote in an online post. “Very helpful outside of class if you need any kind of math help.”
At NCSSM, requests for help can come at all hours. In addition to teaching, flying, and building his own electric vehicle, Rash has also tackled one of the toughest challenges in all of education: He served several years as a Hall Parent, guiding NCSSM’s high schoolers through life at the Durham boarding school.