Take pre-calculus from Tidewater Community College’s Aziz Zahraoui and you won’t just learn about numbers. You’ll learn how they apply to life.

The adjunct instructor on the Portsmouth Campus is one of two Virginians to receive a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. In addition to teaching at the college, Zahraoui has taught math at Churchland High School for the last 15 years.

“What is this used for?” is the question Zahraoui returns to repeatedly when presenting his students with an equation.

“Most math didn’t fall from the sky,” he said. You’re solving an actual problem. I anchor all of my lessons in a particular problem.”

Sometimes it’s how to correctly determine the amount of fondant for an awkwardly sized cake. Or how you make sure your $1,000 drone doesn’t fly astray.

“We are learning mathematics, but not because of a problem from a textbook but because we need a real-world solution,” he said.

Moroccan-born Zahraoui, whose students call him Mr. Z, moved to this country at age 22 to pursue his education.

“I’m one of those dreamers,” he said. “I wanted to work for NASA. When I was looking at the U.S. I was looking at schools that had a connection with NASA.”

Zahraoui’s aspirations relating to space initially made him consider enlisting in the Air Force. A trip to King’s Dominion — changed his mind.

“It was the first time I had been into a theme park,” he said. His response? “Never again.”

He couldn’t stomach the physical effect of being off the ground. He tossed the letters from the military and recalibrated. He took his early classes at TCC before completing a bachelor’s in computer science at Old Dominion University.

Walking to the stage on his graduation day from Old Dominion, a friend tapped him on the shoulder and advised, “You really should consider teaching.”

Something inside him awakened. His parents, still in Morocco, can’t read or write, but education has always been huge for his family. His father took out a second mortgage so Zahraoui could come to the United States to study.

Now Zahraoui’s passion is helping others learn, and he stresses the value of starting at a community college.

“Anybody who is taking higher ed courses, they cannot not think about the advantage of taking classes at such an affordable price,” he said. “TCC was a no-brainer for me, and the quality of education is comparable to the four-year.”