PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century
What works: Observations from the field
Faculty for the 21st Century members reflect on their experience in making a difference for their students and for the communities of which they are a part.
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?
I would hope that a visitor would leave with the impression that everyone is able to learn mathematics. They would see every student being active sometime during the course of the class. Whether it was working in a group to solve one of the problems, or working up on the board, participating in an in-class lab activity, every one should have felt a part. My goal is for every student over the course of a semester to walk away with knowing that math can be exciting, fun, and relevant to them.
What brought you to an interest in “advancing the frontiers of education” and to connecting your research to that work?
One of the age old questions that you hear in math is “What do we use this for?” When I reached graduate school, a whole new world of Mathematics was opened up to me. So many students and professors were working on these really exciting projects that varied from aircraft wing flutter, to robots, to bird wing structure and so on. I really loved hearing about how mathematicians were needed to work on all of these problems. It seemed like everything around me included mathematics. I knew that I had never really understood the underlining connection to the world around me, and the understanding that Math was really the language of Science before that time. I had always just loved math because I liked the challenge. I started wondering why we did not show undergraduates the underlining connections of math to the world around them. I knew that science majors eventually would see it but what about those who did not progress beyond a year of science? What about the Math majors? As I started my own profession as a professor of mathematics, I knew that I wanted to spread my excitement and passion for the subject to my students. I want them to walk away with an understanding that Mathematics is very useful in the world around them.
Were there crises in doing this? What made you persevere?
One of the major crises that I face is how to bring all these exciting topics to an undergraduate at a level that they can understand. Most students do not have a deep understanding of higher-level mathematics. I was trying to strike a balance of showing them where mathematics is used without scaring them to far away with a language that they do not yet understand. I keep trying to work on this because I know that it is important. I have a passion for it, so I keep trying. Another reason I persevere is because of the small success that I have seen. I have one student in particular who I had in a general-level mathematics course. She was studying to be an elementary school teacher. On the first day of class I told my students that we were going to have fun in this class, and one of my goals of the class was for each student to walk away with a better appreciation of mathematics. After class that day this student came by my office to say that she did not see how she could ever have fun in a math class, and that she hated math. Half way through the semester she came back by my office to let me know that she really enjoyed this class, and that it gave her a whole new perspective on mathematics.