Tony Riehl has been teaching high school math for more than 30 years, and he's seen a lot of change.
His tenure has stretched from slide rules to graphing calculators, and now his Algebra II students at Skyview High School are using tablets and smartphones. It's that last jump in technology that's made all the difference.
"Even with the calculators we could do maybe two graphing functions a day," he said. With the tablets, "now you can do a hundred in a period."
Algebra II involves plotting complicated equations on a graph. Giving the students tablets with touchscreens has made the process interactive and helped with their "conceptual understanding" of the math, Riehl said.
On the tablets, students can manipulate the graphs they build and construct simple buildings or other structures.
"It allows you to use your creativity," said sophomore Nolan McHugh.
"I never really thought you could use math other than as a subject in high school," said senior Sara Bonk.
Seeing it applied to shape-shifting and building construction on the tablets has changed her mind.
And that's exactly what Riehl wanted to see. The tablets have made a striking impact on helping his students to learn a tough subject.
Somewhere, Dewey Hansen is smiling.
Hansen, a Senior High graduate and former history teacher, died in 2009. In 2010, the Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools announced that he had left it a $2.7 million endowment to be used specifically to enhance core classes at Billings School District 2’s three high schools — Senior, West and Skyview — and Laurel High.
Officially known as the Dewey J. Hansen and Helen Cothron Hansen Memorial Fund, the gift is the single largest donation the education foundation has ever received.
At Skyview, the money has been used in part to buy the Motorola Xoom tablets the students use. The school also used it to better train their math and science teachers, helping them to get to professional development conferences.
The education foundation has invested the endowment, using the interest it earns to make annual payments to the four high schools — anywhere from $12,500 to $19,500 per school.
"A lot of the focus has been math and science at all the high schools," said Krista Hertz, the education foundation's executive director. "We need to keep our kids competitive."
West High has used the money to bring back field trips for its science students and to build a school garden that's used by the environmental science and biology classes.
The school has been able to take life science students to Yellowstone National Park and earth science students to Pictograph Caves State Park.
"It's been extremely valuable for us," said John Miller, science department chair at West High.
They've used the school garden to teach about soil, plant life, the environment, flower and insect life cycles, genetics in seeds and even harvesting. Students have learned how to recover seeds in the fall and plant them in the spring.
"This is just the start," Miller said.
Senior High, like Skyview, used its money to buy tablets for their math students and new computers for a schoolwide computer lab. That, in turn, has encouraged teachers to find more ways to include technology into their lesson plans.
"With adequate access to technology, the teacher can take the role of facilitator and help guide the students through discoveries," Shaundel Krumheuer, Senior's technology integration specialist, said in an email.
It's been a fun two years for the education foundation and Hansen's family. They've wanted to see students' lives impacted by the gift and they believe that's what they've seen.
"It's all about achievement and opportunities," Hertz said.
Hansen spent much of his life helping and encouraging students.
Before his death in 2009, Hansen, a retired U.S. Air Force officer, spent nearly 50 years as a liaison to the Air Force Academy, helping 169 area teenagers receive an appointment to the Academy or other military academies. The last cadet he sent to the Academy reported there two days before Hansen died.
Sitting in Riehl's class last week, senior Alexandra Borges tapped away on her Xoom tablet, talking about how it's changed math for her.
"It's so much easier — it shows you why something's not working," she said. "It makes math more interesting."