Date: May 31, 2001
Exploring the Beauty of Mathematics
By: Chris Curran
Phone: (513) 556-1806
Photo by: Colleen Kelley
Archive: General News
With a piece of chalk and a simple blackboard, David Minda can do mathematical magic. Instead of a mind-boggling mystery, his students begin to see calculus and higher math as objects of beauty.
"One student told me he didn't realize there was something to understand beyond memorizing. That's one of the delightful times…when they see the beauty of mathematics."
Minda's magical touch in the classroom earned him the 2001 Mrs. A.B. "Dolly" Cohen Award for Excellence in Teaching. Teaching excellence has a long tradition in the UC department of mathematical sciences. Minda studied under three Cohen winners when he was an undergraduate here, and one of his own students, Nan Adler, went on to win a Cohen in 1989.
He said he doesn't rely on a lot of technology. In fact, he can't imagine how he could possibly turn his course into a computer-driven or online learning experience. He needs to be in the classroom … challenging his students … asking questions … demanding answers … and sharing his enthusiasm for a subject often considered more terrifying than
Medusa on a bad hair day.
"It's a calling you have. It has to be something you love to do. Sometimes people will ask 'Why do you do it?' The answer is obvious…because you enjoy doing it. Few people understand what we really do. There's a mathematical bug. You have to have it."
Minda's classroom technique isn't much different from the techniques he learned while a student at UC. He says the mechanics of teaching and organizing a lecture are pretty straightforward. The spice comes from the personality of the professor.
"I'm very traditional. It's much more of a Socratic dialogue. I want to interact with the students. There's a bit of an actor when you present things. You have to be enthusiastic. If you're not showing enthusiasm, they won't."
The enthusiasm and love for mathematics has unusual roots for Minda. His parents were the children of immigrants, and he was the first in his generation to attend college. Growing up in North College Hill, his father always expected David to take over his small business which included installing and balancing HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) systems.
"That's how I spent my summers. You had to make sure everything was in balance. Thermostats would drive my father crazy. You'd work and work to get everything in balance, then someone would change the settings and throw everything off."
After graduating from UC, Minda headed west to UC-San Diego to do his graduate work, "getting as far away from Cincinnati as possible." He admitted, "My parents didn't completely understand, but they never complained. They were very supportive."
Minda has been successful at both teaching and research over the years. He has received external funding for both areas. Within the university, his scholarly activity was recognized by his appointment as a Fellow of the Graduate School in 1994 and his selection as Charles Phelps Taft Professor of Mathematics in 1999.
Despite the heavy demands of teaching plus research, Minda is always ready to show his support for his students. "Part of teaching is guiding and helping students outside of class," wrote graduate student Daniel McWhorter in a nominating letter. "His advice and caring helped me make some difficult career decisions. Dr. Minda was the most insightful and kind teacher I have ever had."
An undergraduate in one of his calculus courses echoed those sentiments on a course evaluation form. "Some teachers give the impression that you're invading their privacy if you go to them for assistance. But Minda helped me anytime I asked."
Since the math department has few majors, most of Minda's students move on to complete their degrees in business, engineering or the sciences. However, his impact is still strong as documented by Edward Prather, assistant dean and head of the Emerging Ethnic Engineers (E3) Program. He said Minda willingly rearranged his teaching schedule to adopt cooperative learning in his calculus courses, because so many students were struggling.
The results were impressive. Grades improved 27 percent overall, and 67 percent earned an "A" or "B." "Dr. Minda's openness to this new idea and his courage to act on it have positively impacted the lives of hundreds of College of Engineering students," wrote Prather.
Joy Moore, a former Holmes Scholar and current faculty members, is one of Minda's favorite success stories. She noted that her "class was comprised of many different cultures, including African-American, Chinese, Japanese, Indiana, Iranian, German, Russian, and Anglo-America. I was impressed by his ability to include and address every culture represented in the class."
Minda helped Moore find the right career path for her. Although she was a capable math researcher, she felt "the bug" and "the calling" too. Together, they charted a path that allowed her to earn an interdisciplinary degree combining mathematics and math education.
"She had reached the stage where she didn't want to continue solely in mathematics. She's African American, and she wanted to be involved in helping other African Americans succeed in mathematics. So after two to three years, I suggested she go interdisciplinary. It was exactly what was right for her. She seems really happy."
Minda has also been an inspiration to high school math teachers in Greater Cincinnati and southwest Ohio through the Park City Math Institute (funded by the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton), an Ohio Board of Regents initiative to enhance math education, and the department's own MAT program which allows certified math teachers to earn a master of arts in teaching mathematics.
Several of his former students took the time to write letters in support of his nomination. "I was pleased to get letters from a lot of them, because I think they are good critics. They are professional teachers too, and they know when you don't prepare and when you don't do a good job."
In fact, it took some of those teachers a bit of time to warm up to Minda's challenging and demanding approach.
"For the first two years, I was genuinely angry with you," wrote Mike Ward, a former MAT student. " I would think that you were unreasonable or uncaring. What I originally thought was an uncaring attitude was instead the most caring thing for a teacher to do: to demand excellence in every thought and expression. This is the type of relationship I wish to have with my students."
Julie Powers of Loveland High School was amazed at what eight weeks in the program could accomplish. "After sweating through this class during the first summer of my MAT program, I felt like a different math teacher going back to my high school classroom!"
"I was driven to strive for perfection in my mathematics," added Catherine Burgett, another MAT student. " If I did not work to my full potential, I felt that not only was I letting myself down, but also Dr. Minda. He is a truly inspirational teacher."
Minda says one of the key differences in his classes is he "always wants students to know why something works. You can teach a lot of people to do problems of a certain type, but it's not clear to me that they're learning anything when they do that."
On his tests, students get color-coded sections. The first is fairly standard computational calculus which his TA grades. The second part, usually printed on yellow paper, tests their knowledge of the actual concepts. "Students groan when they get the yellow part, which is the conceptual part. But there's no way they're going to escape it."
And in the end, they appreciate having a fuller understanding of the subject. "He is the one who teaches, instead of presenting. There is a big difference. For once, I am doing well. It is due to Dr. Minda's teaching," summed up one student on an evaluation.
"Because of his influence, particularly in teaching, I became a teacher myself during one of the worst periods of the job market in teaching mathematics when most changed to computer science," wrote William Ma (PhD 1993) and now a faculty member at Penn State.
Perhaps most important, Minda has earned the respect of his fellow faculty members.
From Edward Merkes who hired him in 1971. "He has a flare for making any topic interesting and exciting. Having him join our faculty is one of my greatest accomplishments as department head."
To Joanna Mitro, the current department head in mathematical sciences. "What really sets David apart is his commitment to, and impact on mathematics education at all levels, from freshman courses to graduate courses and beyond the boundaries of the university."
Find out about other award winners.