Today is day one of the #loveyourmath 5-day campaign sponsored by the Mathematical Association of America. The goal of the campaign is to engage a general audience across a broad representation of mathematics, whether it is biology, patterns, textbooks, art, or puzzles. One of the potential topics for day one is to share what inspired you to get into mathematics, which is something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while. Here goes!

I love mathematics. However, I have not always felt this way. As a child, I was okay at mathematics but far from exceptional (and this is still true!). At some point during my youth, I developed a distaste for the subject. Perhaps more than most young children, the one question I obsessively asked over and over again was “why?” I could not stop my mind from inquiring into the nature of things. The one place that my incessant questioning was met with resistance was in math class, where the response was usually something like, “don’t ask why,” “that’s just the way it is,” or “just accept it.” After hearing this a few hundred times, I started to accept that mathematics was just a bunch of rules that needed to be memorized. This attitude lasted throughout high school and into my freshman year in college.

After graduating high school in 1993, I accepted an academic scholarship to George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Like most freshman, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and I certainly did not think I would major in mathematics, let alone pursue a career in mathematics. Not being fond of writing papers at that time, I began contemplating majors that would require the least amount of writing. I figured that I would major in one of the sciences and upon thumbing through the academic catalog, I soon realized that regardless of which one I chose, I would have to take calculus. So, I registered for Calculus I in the fall semester of my sophomore year, which I did not take in high school. My plan was to “just get it out of the way.” As it turns out, this class changed my life.

On this first day of class, I walked into a rather large lecture hall. Much to my disliking, my class had well over a hundred students in it. I promptly sat in the very back of the room. Soon thereafter, in walked Dr. Robert Sachs. I remember thinking to myself that if you looked up “math geek” in the dictionary, you might see a picture of my new math professor. I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point during the semester, I went from going through the motions (while doing quite well) to being completely captivated during each lecture. This math class was unlike any I had ever had. For the first time, I had a teacher, who not only understood mathematics, but attempted to explain why it works the way that it does. Someone was finally answering my “why” questions! Even more importantly, Dr. Sachs was teaching me that I could discover the answers to all of my questions independently, and that something wonderful can be gained in the process. As a student in the class, I no longer felt like the sole purpose of being there was to quickly jot down a recipe for solving a few meaningless problems. Collectively, we were on a journey of discovery and along the way I was encouraged to turn over as many rocks as I could to see what lived beneath. Just about anyone can write facts on the blackboard, but Dr. Sachs has a gift that allows him to teach effectively while conveying the beauty of mathematics.

The following semester, I made sure that I registered for Calculus II with Dr. Sachs. Yet, despite my budding interest in mathematics, I still had not even remotely considered majoring in the subject. I was a jock, not a math geek. Sometime around the middle of the semester, Dr. Sachs was returning exams and after personally handing me my exam at the back of the room, he asked me what my major was, and I probably just shrugged my shoulders. I can say with absolute certainty that I would not be where I am today if he hadn’t responded with, “you should major in mathematics.” This was not the last time he made this suggestion, as I took some convincing, but eventually I was won over. He saw in me, as I am sure he has for many students, a potential that I did not know I possessed. Eventually, I declared mathematics as my major, which I don’t think anyone would have predicted a few years earlier. Dr. Sachs permanently changed the trajectory of my life!

After a short-lived start to a master’s degree in education, I went on to receive a master’s degree in mathematics from Northern Arizona University, and after a couple years of teaching at Front Range Community College in Colorado, I returned to graduate school and completed my PhD at the University of Colorado Boulder. I currently cannot imagine myself being anything other than a mathematician and a teacher, but unlike many of my colleagues, I was a late bloomer, so to speak. I certainly didn’t aspire to be professor of mathematics when I was a child. I do have vague memories of wanting to be a photographer for National Geographic or a deep ocean explorer. In fact, I think I lucked out as being a mathematician has more in common with these two than the average person might suspect.

While I readily admit that I am peculiar, my path from despising mathematics to loving the subject has given me a perspective that many mathematicians likely do not have as most of them either excelled at mathematics, had an interest in the subject from a very early age, or both. This perspective has played a fundamental role in my teaching and has helped me relate to my students.

By the way, I don’t think Bob looks like a math geek anymore. It’s been a lot of fun to hang out with him at conferences and get to know each other as teachers and mathematicians. Thanks Bob!


Dana C. Ernst

Mathematics & Teaching

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