Sierra College faculty tour Northstar to apply math to jobs

Crew learns the importance of mathematics in chairlift operations
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The Sierra STEM Collaborative supports career technical education programs in manufacturing and product development, engineering and design pathways at the high school and college level. Additional information is available at or contact Carol Pepper-Kittredge, director, Sierra College Center for Applied Competitive Technologies, at (916) 660-7801 or

Sierra College math faculty braved below-freezing temperatures to get a behind-the-scenes tour of what it takes to keep chair lifts operating at Northstar California Resort.

They gathered examples of the mathematics that maintenance technicians apply in their work that can be shared in college classes. The one-day externship was funded by the Sierra Science, Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) Collaborative.

To attract more students to STEM careers, they need math skills, explained Katie Lucero, Math Department chair at Sierra College. “Through this experience, instructors can provide examples of how mathematics is applied at a ski resort,” she said. “By making math relevant, students are likely to be more engaged and persist in taking the courses they need to complete degrees and secure well-paid technical careers.”

Retired Sierra College Mechatronics instructor and Sierra STEM Collaborative consultant Steve Hunter arranged the tour for Lucero, Vicki Day and Ian Wu, Sierra College math faculty members. Through the Sierra College Center for Applied Competitive Technologies, Hunter had provided Mechatronics training for the Californian Ski Industry Association and is very familiar with lift maintenance.

Bryan Zenker, Northstar lift maintenance technician, knew Hunter from taking the basic and advanced Mechatronics CSIA training and gave the math instructors the tour. Northstar is committed to supporting communities where the company's employees live and work, Zenker explained.

“It was great to be able to show the Sierra College math faculty first-hand how the lift maintenance team at Northstar uses the skills they teach in the field,” he said. As part of the tour, both Zenker and Hunter gave the math teachers examples of the math used to design, maintain and repair ski lifts.

“Teachers can use simple geometry to demonstrate calculating the angle of the chair suspended from the cable carrying it up the hill,” Lucero said. “We saw how data was collected and logged daily; basic math computations were used to confirm that the system is running within safety parameters. A much more complicated series of equations would be used by engineers in the design process to determine the weight per chair for the lift system, with and without people, when it is stopped and when it is moving at maximum speed.”

Lucero reported that they got a lot out of the externship experience.

“We all brainstormed about how we could use what we saw,” she said. “To give students a context for learning new material, we can share the experience, show students photographs and give examples of actual equations used in the field. I would absolutely recommend that teachers get out to employer sites, see how their subject is used and bring back relevant examples to help students understand how what they are learning applies to the real world.”