In Ellen O’Brien’s linear algebra class, Jody and Devin Shipp faced the first among many curious looks they would encounter in the Department of Mathematical Sciences. O’Brien was asking the students their last names as she handed back recently graded exams. Jody had already received hers, and Devin piped up, “My name is Shipp, as well.” Surprised, O’Brien asked, “Oh, is that your sister?” When Devin replied, “No, it’s actually my mom,” it didn’t compute for O’Brien. Confused, she kept asking, “You’re taking this class and sitting next to your mom?”
“She was just shocked,” remembers Devin, 26. “She couldn’t get over the fact that we would sit together and work together on stuff.” That was 2010, and since then, the mother-and-son team of Jody and Devin Shipp have become exemplary students and role models for their peers. As they prepare to graduate this spring, this pair demonstrates the power of a unique parent-child partnership.
While many children want to put distance between themselves and their parents, Devin often conferred with Jody before signing up for classes each semester. “I liked to take the same classes because it tends to make me work harder,” Devin says.
She sums up her parenting style with a simple but powerful concept: love your children for who they are. Jody instilled in Devin a love of math since his childhood.The only question she would ask him when he returned from school was, “Did you get any math homework?” Once he finished his assignment, Jody gave Devin the task of doing extra math problems, which they would work on together. “Obviously, I was reluctant to listen half the time,” he remembers. “But that’s what got me going on math because actually, when you’re doing math that much, you become good at it.”
As math tutors, both Jody and Devin strongly believe that success doesn’t come overnight. Jody, in particular, takes issue with the notion that one is either born with the so-called math gene or not. Learning math takes hours of practice and, in some cases, help from a tutor. Math educators haven’t done the best job of illuminating the real-world applications of math for students who struggle and eventually lose motivation, she notes. “I would tell students to stick with it and try to find a way to relate math to your own life,” she says.
For the Shipps, learning math is like learning a language: Repetition creates fluency, and fluency fuels passion. Math’s power was first demonstrated to Jody in high school, when she learned to use trigonometry to figure out a building’s height. Devin embraces math’s consistency: “In a world of uncertainty, math is something that’s rock solid.”
Of the two, Devin will say his mom is more of a math superstar, although his mom disagrees. Last year, she was chosen to participate in a National Science Foundation– supported program called Undergraduate Research in Computational Mathematics, attending the Joint Mathematics Meeting in Boston earlier this year to present her work. In 2010, she received the Amer Beslagic Award from the math department and, before that, a math award from Northern Virginia Community College.
These accolades are a long time coming for Jody, who began her college career more than twenty years ago as an electrical engineering major at Utah State University. She left school after two years when she married. Now at fortynine—and after a fifteen-year career in customer service at Delta Airlines—she is picking up where she left off, exemplifying the adage, “It’s never too late.” Jody will start her master’s degree in education at Mason after earning her bachelor’s degree in mathematics this spring.
Devin, a member of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, was recently selected to become a pilot in the U.S.Air Force. He will begin training at Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas, after graduating with his bachelor’s degree this spring. He loves how math relates to patterns and codes and aspires to work at the National Security Agency some day, helping defend the United States against cyber attacks. A doctoral degree in math is also in his sights.