The student news site of El Camino College

El Camino College The Union

The student news site of El Camino College

El Camino College The Union

The student news site of El Camino College

El Camino College The Union

Year 15 and counting: statistics professor continues to thrive in and out of the classroom

El Camino College statistics professor Junko Forbes showcases math items in her office on Thursday Oct. 12. (Greg Fontanilla | Warrior Life)

As a young child, Junko Forbes never thought she would teach mathematics. She wanted to be a music composer for films like how John Williams composed for the Star Wars and Harry Potter series or “Jurassic Park.”

Her passion for music began at age 3, playing the piano until she was 18. As a college student, she wanted to double major in music and mathematics.

On two occasions, she had light bulb moments that allowed her to put the pieces of her future together.

A future in teaching mathematics.

In high school, her mathematics teacher ignited Forbes’ natural inclination for numbers. She failed a math exam in her junior year, but her math teacher noticed her potential.

“He really believed in me,” Forbes said.

The second time around, she was in college. As a California State University Long Beach student, she was under the instruction of Yong Hee Kim-Park, who inspired her to develop a passion for statistics.

More than a decade later, she’s in charge of about 200 math students at El Camino College.

Statistics professor Junko Forbes writes equations on the white board on Thursday, Sept. 21. (Greg Fontanilla | Warrior Life)
Statistics professor Junko Forbes writes equations on the white board on Thursday, Sept. 21. (Greg Fontanilla | Warrior Life)

During the week, the 42-year-old math professor can be found teaching statistics in a classroom in the Mathematical Sciences building at ECC. On a fall afternoon, she puts up a math equation on a projector in her classroom.

She does a lesson on lower and upper fences and outliers.

She pulls out a calculator to demonstrate how to solve the equation, then displays another equation for students to solve. She slowly walks around the classroom, checking each student’s work.

A student raises his hand. She hustles over to help.

This is what she enjoys most. Helping students understand the often complicated nature of mathematics can cause some students to struggle. Since 2008, she has worked at ECC teaching statistics, helping the math division’s success rates with her teaching style.

“I really believe that teaching is the most rewarding way of contributing to other human beings,” Forbes said.

She’s been seen flashing her contagious smile in El Camino College’s math building, greeting those she stumbles across. The clicks and clacks of the math professor’s shoes can be heard as she’s walking around the building.

Originally from Shizuoka, Japan, she attended an all-girls Catholic school for six years, from junior high to high school. The eldest of five, she has two brothers and two sisters. As a high school student, she played basketball, but she also developed a passion for mathematics from her math teacher, the school president.

She later moved to the United States at 19 years old to learn English.

After high school, she was accepted at Long Beach City College, the first to respond to her applications. After one year, she considered returning to Japan before realizing she wanted to teach while tutoring at the Math Success Center at LBCC. She then pursued her math degree and wanted to stay in Los Angeles.

In addition to taking math courses, she began taking music classes because she wanted to double major in math and music. However, Forbes found music to be difficult but sought it out as a hobby. On the other hand, she had a natural interest in math and thought pursuing it as a career would work in her favor.

“I just loved tutoring students, so I pursued earning a degree in mathematics,” Forbes said. “I wanted to try teaching in classrooms to see how that makes me feel.”

Upon this realization, she decided to pursue a math degree, transferring to California State University Long Beach, where she obtained her bachelor of science degree in mathematics with a certificate in statistics.

She followed that up with a master’s degree in math, also from CSULB. While attending graduate school, she launched her teaching career in February 2007 at Cerritos College as a part-time instructor. It was here she taught intermediate algebra.

“It was a great sense of fulfillment, I felt,” Forbes said. “It made me feel like this is it, this is going to become my passion.”

Forbes was teaching intermediate algebra her first semester at California State University Long Beach when she realized she found her calling as a teacher.

On her first day of teaching, she walked into a room of 40 students feeling nervous but also feeling a sense of fulfillment, knowing she was contributing to the success of her math students.

After graduation from CSULB, Forbes applied to work at several community colleges, including Rio Hondo, El Camino, and LBCC. She eventually began teaching at El Camino in 2008, starting as a part-time instructor in the college’s mathematical science department.

Forbes taught basic math courses, including algebra.

Early in her teaching career at El Camino, “pure lecturing” became her teaching method, but she acknowledges this method was not working for her. This entailed writing on a chalkboard, with no group work.

“It was not working. I figured I was losing my students’ interest,” Forbes said.

In an effort to change her teaching methods, she attended professional development seminars in which her colleagues from different community colleges shared their different teaching methods. Forbes also attended programs, including the Basic Math Skills Cohort, for approximately two years after being recruited by math instructors Lars Kjeseth and Arturo Martinez. She attended the seminars every Friday.

“I was very excited to go in. I was not nervous,” Forbes said. “Once I got there, I was a little nervous because I was intimidated by other teachers’ teaching methods.”

Forbes had grown accustomed to her teaching method of pure lecturing. That eventually changed after learning about different teaching approaches.

One of those methods learned was a teach-back method. This entailed lecturing for about 20 to 30 minutes and students doing an in-class activity to reinforce the lesson material. Additionally, Forbes would have students work in groups. After working on the in-class activity individually or in groups, she called students up to the whiteboard to demonstrate how they came up with an answer for a math problem.

Forbes realized this teaching method allowed her students to understand course material better and continues to use this in her classrooms today.

“I was able to see if my students understood the concept or not,” Forbes said. “It was a good way of assessing students.”

Marlowe Lemons, dean of the Mathematical Sciences division at ECC, observed this in Forbes’ classroom.

“When I’ve seen her in the classrooms, she’s very proactive in learning,” Lemons said. “She teaches the lectures, and has some type of activity that puts them in groups and collaborates.”

Junko Forbes, right, assists a student during a statistics class in an El Camino College classroom on Thursday, Sept. 21. Forbes is now in her 15th year teaching mathematics at the college.
Junko Forbes, right, assists a student during a statistics class in an El Camino College classroom on Thursday, Sept. 21. Forbes is now in her 15th year teaching mathematics at the college. “I really believe that teaching is the most rewarding way of contributing to other human beings,” Forbes said. (Greg Fontanilla | Warrior Life)

Susan Tummers, a math professor who has been with El Camino for 24 years, said Forbes is an excellent professor and someone who strives for growth.

“She’s excited to teach. She likes to see students understanding material, she loves her subject and wants to convey her love of (the) subject to her students,” Tummers said.

That love is obvious. During an interview with Warrior Life, a statistics student interrupts, praising Forbes for her work as a math instructor.

“The best I’ve had since I got here,” Sha’heed Scoggins said.

Lemons also praised Forbes.

“She has a good rapport with her students,” Lemons said. “She is a very popular professor amongst our students.”

Lemons continued to discuss the hard work the longtime professor has put in.

“She’s always been supportive and helpful to the department,” Lemons said. “She really puts forth blood, sweat, and tears to see all of her students succeed.”

In 2010, Forbes was hired for a full-time position as a math professor at ECC. Thinking she did not get the job after interviewing with a panel that included then President Tom Fallo, she received a phone call that afternoon from Donald Goldberg, who was dean of the Mathematical Sciences division at the time, offering her the job.

As a newly hired full-time professor, she began teaching additional classes, including statistics, a class she teaches at least once every semester. At the beginning of every semester, Forbes conducts basic data collecting in her classrooms in order to adjust teaching material based on student interest by giving surveys.

In her surveys, she extrapolates basic data from students such as interests, majors, or even the number of hours a student works at their job.

“I can tell what kind of students I am going to be teaching,” Forbes said. “I do change my lecture notes accordingly, to what kind of students I have in my class.”

She also makes it a point to memorize students’ names by the end of week one, keeping them interested and appreciated.

“They deserve the best version of me,” Forbes said. “That’s important as a teacher.”

Forbes said the majority of her students take her statistics classes as a general education requirement, while there are very few who major in mathematics.

According to ECC’s Office of Institutional Research and Planning, the success rates of the math department as a whole during fall semesters have averaged out to about 50.2% from 2019 to 2022. The completion rate is nearly 70%. The success rate during spring semesters from 2020 to 2023 is about 60% on average, while the completion rate is 77.3%.

Carolyn Pineda, an analyst in ECC’s Institutional Research and Planning, said the COVID-19 pandemic affected the numbers from the spring 2020 semester.

“There were so many emergency withdrawals due to spring 2020 pandemic,” Pineda said.

Outside of teaching mathematics, Forbes enjoys listening to classical music and watching musicals. Some of her favorite musicals include “To Kill a Mockingbird,” based on a book of the same name written by Harper Lee.

Additionally, she likes to travel with her husband, Sean Forbes, who is a screenplay writer. They met at LBCC while taking the same English class together and now live together in Long Beach.

She likes to travel – to San Francisco, San Diego, Singapore and back home to Japan. In addition to traveling together, the couple likes to watch musicals and movies, and visit museums.

Forbes said math is more than just a tough subject. It can be used in many ways.

“We can actually model our world with mathematical equations,” Forbes said. “We can actually describe what is going on in the world, how we can solve our problems using mathematical models so we can make suggestions for a better world.”

Editor’s Note: Article updated for clarity on Dec. 8, at 6:18 p.m.

More to Discover