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A scratch pad sits in front of a Marine studying algebra during his spare time at Al Asad, Iraq, Oct. 13.

Photo by Cpl. Jonathan K. Teslevich

Deployed Marines teach college algebra to fellow devil dogs

27 Nov 2007 | Cpl. Jonathan K. Teslevich

Dividing polynomials in a college algebra class is the norm for many students attending college in the United States, but it is not what one typically thinks of as the thing to do while deployed to a combat zone.

Sgt. Roger D. Huffstetler, operations chief with Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 3, Marine Central Command, has changed that for his fellow Marines by teaching a college algebra class offered through Park University.

“This is my second time around,” said Huffstetler, a Newnan, Ga., native. “The first time I taught was in Afghanistan, where I found out how rewarding it was to help the other Marines.”

Although Huffstetler is continuing to teach the course, he is now receiving help from two of his former students, Cpl. Cory A. Crane, an aircraft ordnance technician with VMAQ-3, and Sgt. Matthew P. Howell, an electronic countermeasures technician with VMAQ-3, who accelerated in the course while in Afghanistan.

“I approached them when we were back in the United States, explained to them that I was teaching this class, and was going to have a lot more students,” said Huffstetler. “I’ve got 23 students, which is a lot for one person. Howell and Crane sit in on the classes and help the students at the maintenance hanger sometimes for hours after class.”

While Huffstetler is being paid for his efforts by Park University, his volunteers sacrifice their time for free, but feel like they get an emotional reward.

“I took it in Afghanistan because it was a prerequisite toward my degree in Criminal Justice,” said Crane, a Wasilla, Ala., native.  “I aced both his classes in Afghanistan. I help the students, walk them through their problems, help them after class and make sure what Huff taught them got through clearly. It’s very gratifying to help the people do these problems.”

Huffstetler credits his two voluntary assistants with the class’ success.

“They’re the ones really helping out their fellow Marines,” said Huffstetler. “They’re doing the noble deed.”

Having earned a Bachelors of Science in Chemistry in 2001 from the University of West Georgia, Huffstetler brings solid credentials and zeal to his position in front of the class.

“I like teaching,” he said. “When I was in graduate school, I taught chemistry, so some of those skills transferred over. The Marines need something to help keep their minds off working twelve hours a day, so having an outside class like this helps.”

His students bring the same eagerness to the classroom as the skills they portray on the job, according to Huffstetler.

“The strong students help the weaker ones, and the weak ones are real good about approaching the stronger ones for it,” said Huffstetler. “The evidence for that is Crane and Howell. They don’t have to do anything for the students, but they want to better themselves and help others.”

Teaching in a converted courtyard inside his squadron’s headquarters, he has plenty of leeway in how he teaches his students and puts the onus on them as part of his teaching style.

“When you’re a deployed instructor, you have a lot of latitude in how you structure the class and the teaching methods you use,” said Huffstetler. “You do have to have a certain number of contact hours with your students -- 56 in this case.”

“The method I use is asking the students a lot of questions as I’m teaching,” he said. “I keep them engaged because math is not one of the most exciting things to do one hour a day, six days a week.”

While perplexed looks and smiles can be seen as the students work through the equations that inhabit their college algebra books, they feel the time and effort has been well spent.

“I wasn’t really good at math in high school, but since Sergeant Huffstetler was offering the class out here, I decided to take it,” said Lance Cpl. Trevor W. Varner, a Lancaster, Pa., native. “It has gone pretty well. I’m not an A-student, but with the way he taught it, I was able to understand some of the things I didn’t in high school.”

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