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A +B=Enthusiasm: How Professor Dick Smith Makes Math Fun

Wednesday, October 30, 2013  
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How do you feel when you think about math? Some may say exhausted, overwhelmed, bored. Some say excited, interested, and compelled. Dick Smith, Associate Professor, Department of Natural and Applied Sciences, says he feels enthusiastic about mathematics and he hopes his students have the same feelings after taking his classes.

"To me, mathematics is useful. It has a utility side but sometimes we forget that it's fun and artistic. Just focusing on utility and usefulness, it can be very boring - doing it just because it's necessary. I challenge students to enjoy it and see its connection as a beautiful body of knowledge, not just isolated tools," says Smith.

Smith engages students in a variety of ways. Most recently, he has been challenging students to research with him, not teaching them what is already known about math, but letting them discover things on their own. This type of teaching gets students out of the text book. A text book is necessary, but reflects the work of others. Smith says, "A text book does not reflect the possible findings of me as a professor and my students. I try to find things that have not been in the text book yet."

This summer, Smith was challenged by Professor David Maddux of Iowa State University to find non-rectangular and non-trapezoidal quadrilaterals that have integral sides and also integral areas. Smith decided this would be a great opportunity and project for his students. "I'm now challenging math majors and minors to do this project and not showing them how. I ask them to study with me and I don't tell them what I've done. My belief is that by not giving them all my findings they come up with their own unique strategies - that they would not have - if I had been too directive," explains Smith.

Many students today think that mathematics is really clean, an area that has been developed for centuries, and area that is all old. But Smith explains there is a side of math that is messy, where you have to wrestle in the ditches with ideas and know that sometimes your efforts are going to fail. This type of learning exposes students to that side of math.

"I comment on their ideas but don't tell them my strategies. I want them to own theirs. The spirit of research is to go down roads where other people haven't gone before; to see if there is anything down those roads. Sometimes there isn't, but the only way to find out is to travel them. I’ve been on a lot of winding roads to know that, but every once in a while you come up with a finding. The only way to find new things is to travel the journey. It can be a frustrating lonely experience but you have eureka moments," says Smith.

There have been several students who have been motivated by this opportunity. They are developing theories, presenting at conferences, and exploring complicated ideas. In a time where employers demand critical thinking skills of recent college grads, this type of learning will surely pay off for UD students.

Smith has been with the University of Dubuque since 2003. Prior to that, he taught in the Western Dubuque school system. Throughout the course of his career at UD, Smith has many impressive scholarship accomplishments. For example, he has published several articles and reflections in Mathematics Teacher, completed a variety of speaking engagements across the country, and authored a notable research project titled "Finding Skewed Lattice Rectangles: The Geometry of a^2+b^2=c^2+d^2."

Click here to read more November 2013 articles. 

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