Contrary to popular opinion, the field of mathematics is creative, even beautiful
- particularly to mathematicians. In a similar way, beauty can be found in the general education courses new undergraduate students might be tempted to rush through, as if merely items to check off on a list.
So says Dr. Catherine Abbott, professor of mathematics at Keuka College and the 2013-14 Professor of the Year. Delivering the keynote address Tuesday at academic convocation, Abbott, a 13-year veteran among the faculty, welcomed new freshmen and transfer students to campus and challenged them to seek new learning experiences within the diverse array of possibilities available to them.
Often Abbott says she is asked why she enjoys mathematics, but the question is frequently delivered in much the same tone as when Abbott asked her young daughter why she would want to dye her hair with Kool-Aid. As laughter peppered the rows of those seated in Norton Chapel, Abbott then explained what it is about math that she finds so satisfying.
“Many times students tell me they like mathematics because, ‘there is only one answer,’” she said, adding such a response often tempts her to reply that while there may only be one answer, there are frequently “multiple ways to get there.”
Citing the Pythagorean Theorem as one such example, Abbott pointed to some of her favorite distinctive mathematical proofs including one attributed to Euclid, one by former U.S. President James Garfield, and a 1939 proof, devised by American Maurice Laisnez, then a high school student. What all three shared in common, Abbott said, was the desire to create.
So too, Abbott discovered her own creativity – and an appreciation for the creativity of other mathematicians – as she worked to solve complex equations. It sometimes took days, and then weeks to solve questions as an undergraduate and later, grad student, she described. While completing her doctorate, it could take months. While it felt “tremendous” when finally solving a challenging theorem, she said, there were also many other questions she was never able to answer. Still, mathematicians the world over use words like “elegant” to describe the beauty, even poetry within their equations and proofs.
“What makes a proof or theorem ‘elegant?’ I don’t think I could hope to quantify it any more than I could hope to explain my tastes in art, music, or literature—or our current math majors’ obsession with Dr. Who, for that matter,” she said.
According to Abbott, she chose the discipline of mathematics “for much the same reasons my colleagues on the faculty have made their choices. My field is creative, beautiful, challenging, and exciting.”
“What about you?” she asked, turning the question to students. “What is going to excite you? Will it be the English course where you learn to appreciate a piece of poetry for the first time? Will it be the history course where you really understand the relationship between World War I and World War II?”
Citing her own experience entering college with an undecided major, Abbott advised students not to hurry through general education courses, lest they miss the hidden beauty of diverse subjects.
“You wouldn’t drive from New York to California without taking time to appreciate the scenery,” she said.
“How do I know this? From my office directly across from Jephson 101, I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy some fantastic classes during the last thirteen years,” Abbott said, referring to a central lecture hall in the Jephson Science Center. “So take your time to enjoy these courses. You may not find your passion, but then again, you may. I wish you success in your journey here at Keuka College.”
Also welcoming news students with brief remarks at academic convocation were College President Dr. Jorge L. Díaz-Herrera and Robert Schick, chair of the Board of Trustees. The ceremony marks the official opening of the 2014-15 academic year and includes a colorful processional with upperclassman bearing flags from around the world and faculty in regalia lining the sidewalk to Norton Chapel and applauding new students as they enter. The symbolic rite of passage is an annual tradition for the College.
How does a Keuka degree fit into daily military life?
Just ask U.S. Air Force Capt. Ryan Maddox ’07, who graduated with a B.A. in math and a B.S. in business management, and now serves as operations officer for the U.S. Air Force 52nd Equipment Maintenance Squadron, which includes four officers and 461 enlisted airmen at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany. Maddox is second-in-command to the squadron commander.
“I handle operations and she handles the personnel—the pats on the back and the kicks in the butt, so to speak,” he said. “We provide munitions support and we do maintenance. Let’s say after flying, a part gets damaged and needs repair. We repair it through metal fabrication.”
In addition, the squadron handles what Maddox calls “deep tissue maintenance,” such that after every 400 flight hours logged by a particular plane, it will spend from 7-20 days in the base hangar getting stripped down for more intensive analysis or repairs.
“As far as business is concerned, maintenance and munitions is pretty much like any other business. We have a product, a process, customers, logistics, and a supply chain. I market my product to my customers – other squadrons – so they get what they want and I’m able to supply it. It’s almost a direct correlation [to business].” (more…)
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of profiles on new, full-time faculty members.
With 20 years of experience working as a middle and high school math teacher, Jack Westbrook has more than prepared himself for life at Keuka.
Westbrook received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics and master’s degree in mathematics education from SUNY Geneseo. His first career move was as a seventh and 11th grade math teacher at Harpursville (N.Y.) Central School. After a year, he moved on to Hilton (N.Y.) Central School, where he taught all levels of math from non-Regents, ninth grade to Pre-Calculus.
Westbrook says that teaching high school math and college math are alike.
“I have actually found teaching here to be more similar to teaching high school than I thought it would be,” he said. I guess teaching is teaching.”
As for the differences, Westbrook says discipline issues are completely different, and the amount of time and effort the students and professors put in are complete polar opposites.
Westbrook chose Keuka for the “smallness” and for the chance to do something new. He also liked how “Keuka gives everyone a personal touch” and he would like to bring this into his classes.
With many years of teaching expereince, Westbrook hopes to bring a different perspective to his classes that include Secondary Math Methods, College Algebra, Math for Elementary Education, and Developmental Math. This new perspective comes from Westbrook’s experience with students who struggle with math, and he hopes to be able to help guide them through.
“I also think the wisdom from experience will help me give strong advice and strategies to the students in my Secondary Methods class,” he said.
Even though he is new to Keuka, Westbrook knows how vital Field Period is to the College and he is going to encourage his students to “use Field Periods to get more experience in schools, whether it be volunteering, or just helping out in the classroom.”
Westbrook already wants to do more than his fair share, and he’s eager to dig his hands into the main work of a Keuka College faculty member.
“I’m looking forward to advising students in the future.”
Professor of Biology Jim White’s area of expertise is vertebrate ecology, but he can just as easily talk history—when it relates to Keuka College over the last half-century.
That’s because White has been a member of the faculty for the last 46 years.
In the past few decades, National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded researchers have won more than 170 Nobel Prizes as well as other prestigious awards.
Junior math (and management) major Amy Stroka could be among the list of future award winners someday.
Not that the Middleport native is looking to win any awards.