Thomas Banchoff

Brown University
2004 DTS Award

Dr. Thomas Banchoff
Professor of Mathematics
Brown University

Dr. Banchoff's Homepage

NSF Award Recognition


Jeanne L. Narum, Director, Project Kaleidoscope, interviewing Dr. Thomas Banchoff.

If a visitor were to come into your classroom/lab - the environment in which you work with students - what impression would s/he leave with?

Student responses seem to drive the entire enterprise, either comments made in class to my semi-rhetorical questions, or suggestions that come from their submissions to homework and reading assignments. Often those responses appear on the computer screen attached to my laptop, along with interactive demonstrations prepared by students working with me over the summer, often modified by students working individually or together on projects arising from conjectures in class or online. The new conjectures that we will examine before the next class meeting arise from the class interaction and show up within one day as formal assignments or discussion questions, both of which receive online responses. The visitor receives the impression that she or he has seen a process, possibly that she or he has been part of it.

What brought you to an interest in "advancing the frontiers of education" and to connecting your research to that work?

From the early days my grants from the National Science Foundation included support for undergraduate students working on software for communication and graphics demonstrations. Gradually my major support shifted from the Division of Mathematical Sciences to the Division of Undergraduate Education, and more recently to Education and Human Resources. Nearly twenty years ago I was invited to write a chapter on "Dimensions" for a Natural Research Council volume "On the Shoulders of Giants" and that led to consulting arrangements with Josten's Learning on elementary education. Ten years ago I was invited to run for president of the Mathematical Association of America, and from that point onward, all of my interests in research and education came together.

Were there risks in doing this? What were they? What made you persevere? How have you documented the successes of your educational efforts?

At first I was a bit concerned to see my NSF support shift from pure research to research and teaching to primarily teaching, but by that time, my reputation for research in a differential and polyhedral geometry was set. My own department was always supportive. I have documented my education efforts in a number of publications of the MAA, including Notes, Focus, and Research in Undergraduate Mathematical Education.

What connections have been of most value in pursuing these efforts, within your campus community as well as in the broader professional communities to which you belong?

From the time of my arrival at Brown University, I have collaborated with computer scientists as well as colleagues in many other disciplines. I have always received encouragement from the Brown administration, and from the National Science Foundation. I have appreciated my participation in the American Mathematical Society, the MAA, the Society for Values in Higher Education, and the Carnegie Foundation.

For faculty at an early career stage, it is difficult to figure out how to balance responsibilities for research and teaching while having a personal life; any advice - for them and for faculty at any stage?

Basic advice is to make time for family and other responsibilities. Either research or teaching can move in to fill in all available time. Shared mealtime seems to be a key, threatened more by pressures on adolescents than professional pressures.

What kind of institutional culture needs to be in place to nurture careers of faculty actively seeking to integrate their research and education?

Faculty have to be assured that both research and teaching are centrally important in hiring and promotion. True educational innovation deserves recognition that parallels the reception given to research production1, one of the main efforts of the Carnegie Foundation.

What can be done at the national level to encourage and support efforts like yours and those of many other leading agents of change on campuses across the country?

Right now the Distinguished Teaching Scholar award is the most prominent across disciplines. Professional societies like the MAA also play a large role in recognizing educational contributions.

Please tell us about the project that you will be undertaking as part of the DTS award. How can others be involved with and/or continue to be informed about your work?

My long-term research project on interactive Internet-based teaching and learning in mathematics has reached a sufficiently stable stage that we are ready to disseminate the communication and demonstration software. We will be working with a number of teachers at different kinds of institutions using laboratory materials for multivariable calculus and differential geometry, and we will be running short courses at national and regional meetings of the MAA, the best source for information about the future of the project.