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Math education entrepreneur finds opportunities

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Usually, the people filling the guest seat during California State University, San Marcos' "In the Executive’s Chair" class have been in their CEO position for years. Their businesses usually have an official name and they don’t often admit they're unsure whether their business plan will work.

But that wasn’t the case when Bill Hixson, Colombia University professor and math consultant at the New York City Department of Education, took the stage.

After receiving his undergraduate degree in mathematics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Hixson pursued master’s degrees in business and teaching from Harvard and Colombia, respectively.

Over his career, he has worked for IBM and the Peace Corps, ran a painting company in high school and founded his own company. He’s taught mathematics to students and tried to become a veterinarian.

His varied background gave him the necessary tools to begin his new entrepreneurial endeavor: a yet-to-be-named company that will create a computer program to help students learn math at their own pace.

Hixson said he’s patterning his business plan model after what he observed while serving as CEO of Argonaut Information Systems in Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom and is not sure if it will work the same way it did then.

Despite all the other things he has done, he said helping students better understand and appreciate mathematics has been one of his most rewarding career choices yet.

Currently, a pilot program is being tested in New York City public schools and Hixson said it is showing positive results.

He said one of his students, a ninth-grader who began the program with a fifth- or sixth-grade math proficiency level has now become the top of her class.

The program will be more widely implemented in New York public schools in September, and if it works may be headed to classrooms throughout the country.

He said the secret to the program is that it helps students work at their own pace by creating a curriculum based on how they learn. By finding patterns based on what types of problems students answer correctly or incorrectly, the program adjusts to help the student understand what he or she is doing in ways teachers cannot.

Teachers “want their students to engage, but they just don’t know how to get them to do it,” he said. Adding that in a class of 100, it might be necessary to teach mathematics 100 different ways for everyone in the room to achieve the same level of understanding.

Hixson said different people work in different ways, and just as education should be flexible, individuals should try to be flexible as well.

He said there are three main things one needs to be successful in business: to have honesty and integrity and to always keep one’s eyes open for new opportunities.

“Be always opportunistic,” said Hixson. “You don’t always know what will be there tomorrow, but if you keep looking, you’ll keep finding things. … If you’re constantly looking, you’ll always have opportunities.”


* Effective corporate leadership: Bill Hixson

* Interview with Bill Hixson

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