“I used to think all math was just calculus—and I liked calculus, so that wasn't a bad thing—but there was all this other stuff, like graph theory, number theory—all these brand new fields I didn’t know even existed.”—Ryan Morrill
Outdating written records,
the study of mathematics may be the oldest
of these pillars—piquing human curiosity for
longer than we’ve been keeping track. Given
this, it is unsurprising that the etymological
root of the word mathematics stems simply
from the ancient Greek word for "learning."
Often called a "pure" science, mathematics
in its most basic form often emphasizes the
idea of doing math for math's sake, regardless
of whether a practical application is apparent
at the outset. While applications are often
found after the fact—for example, number
theory as applied to cryptography in computer
science—this notion of basic research holds
a sacred appeal for those attracted to the idea
of problem-solving without the pressure to
produce marketable results.
All for math...
After two years studying at MacEwan
University, Edmonton-born Ryan Morrill
('14 BSc) transferred to the University of Alberta,
where he was introduced to a different side
of math in MATH 222 (Discrete Math). "This
course was just pure problem solving, pure logic. It was really different from anything I'd ever
taken before," he explains, describing how the
instructor would often sit in front of the class
and present a problem, then ask the students
simply to think about it. "It was a very organic
approach to problem solving."
"I used to think all math was just calculus—and I liked calculus, so that wasn't a bad thing—but there was all this other stuff, like graph theory, number theory—all these brand new fields
I didn't know even existed."
The experience was illuminating. Like many
undergraduate science students, Morrill began
his education with aspirations of pursuing a career in medicine, but the experience he had in
MATH 222 stuck with him. He switched from general science to a math major, and is now
pursuing a master's degree in the area.
"I feel like people often just think of the
U of A as a research institution, not an educational institution," he says. "But there are a lot
of really good instructors here—definitely in
math. That’s something that made me really
glad that I picked the U of A."
...and math for all
At the completion
of that first math class,
Morrill was offered an
opportunity to pick up the
torch and help lead a math
circle over the summer,
training a group of junior high students for an
international competition. The group met for a
few hours almost every day, with the top eight
students joining Morrill for the competition in
Taiwan at the end of the summer.
Morrill has since taken over the JAMES
math circle (Junior Alberta Mathematics for
Eager Students) year-round. "A math circle
has a lot more structure than a math club," he
explains. "Each session has a distinct purpose
to teach a certain concept. It might be an introduction to a field of math—so maybe we’ll have
a session on graph theory, or maybe it’ll be a
session on a problem solving strategy."
The circle now meets once a week, and
while the majority of students attend regularly,
Morrill makes a point to design each session to
stand firmly on its own. "I usually try to make
sure that the sessions we do don’t relate too
heavily to each other, so if somebody misses
a lecture, I don’t want them to feel too far behind, or if someone drops in for the first time
they don’t feel lost."
"I hope that when they leave the circle, they become better critical thinkers."
Though the circle is targeted specifically to
strong math students looking for a challenge,
Morrill also strives to imbue his students
with skills that will help beyond their studies.
"I hope that they can take the things they've slowly
been learning over the years and become better
learners as a result of that. I think that’s really the
most important thing—to become a better learner.
"I hope that when they leave the circle, they
become better critical thinkers. I’m not actually
too concerned that they take away concrete math
knowledge. I want to focus more on problem solving abilities and learning things that will help them
in whatever they go on to do."
As an educator, Morrill gets as much out of the
math circle as his students do. He sees the circle as
an opportunity for him to improve his own teaching abilities, since the flexible format allows him
to experiment with fresh approaches to teaching.
"I was just looking for a job, really anything—and I
ended up getting all this stuff to do with education
and students. Once I did that for a bit, I found I
really enjoyed it, so I kept doing it."
So much in fact, that he is considering continuing on in a PhD not to pursue research, but
to teach at the postsecondary level.
He is well on his way to success in that area
as well, having been honoured with a Graduate
Student Teaching Award this spring. And Morrill is in good company—the U of A’s Department of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences
is stacked with award-winning instructors.
One of them, the 2016
winner of the Faculty of
Science Award for Excellent
Teaching is Sean Graves
('01 BEd, '07 MSc), another
educator who simply
couldn’t resist his calling. After obtaining his
education degree from the U of A, Graves taught
in England and Japan for several years before
returning to Canada to obtain his master’s
degree in—you guessed it—mathematics. "Upon
returning to Canada, I had reflected on how
much I enjoyed the last few mathematics courses
that I completed during my education degree,
which led to my decision to study more math,"
He has now been teaching at the U of A for
nine years, the past four of which he has spent
additionally coordinating the Decima Robinson
Support Centre for Mathematical and Statistical
"My ultimate objective is to provide others an opportunity to witness the beauty and the satisfaction that I see when studying mathematics"
A testament to math's deep connection to
almost every academic discipline, the centre
is fittingly named after first ever graduate of
the University of Alberta, Decima Robinson
('11 BSc, '12 MSc)—a mathematics major called
the "Calculus Maid" by her classmates.
More than a century after her graduation,
Robinson’s legacy lives on in the centre bearing
her name. The resource is available to all undergraduate students enrolled in a 100- or 200-level
MATH or STAT course, and is accessed by thousands of students every month. A team of up to
six volunteer graduate and senior undergraduate
students are available throughout the day to help
walk students through challenging problems.
"My ultimate objective is to provide others
an opportunity to witness the beauty and the
satisfaction that I see when studying mathematics," says Graves. "I hope my passion for mathematics shines through when I teach my students
and that I can inspire some of them to further
their own studies in this glorious subject."
In addition to offering day-to-day student
support, the centre is also home to the JAMES
Math Circle and the Alberta Summer Mathematics Institute, a summer-long day camp for
strong high school students to learn advanced
mathematics and explore directed research.
Sharing the love
Student support in
far beyond campus borders.
Faculty of Science award
winner for Innovation in
Teaching Vincent Bouchard
has been involved for the past several years in
a two-week-long math summer camp at the
Maskwacis Cree Reserve—specifically with the
Ermineskin Cree Nation—located about an
hour south of Edmonton.
"Ermineskin is a really interesting place to
work. While they have had trouble with school
success rates as have many other First Nations,
Ermineskin has a very well established and
stable school system and is actively developing new initiatives to improve education," says
Bouchard. "The math camp is part of this push.
In many respects, I think that they are an educational model for many other First Nations."
The camp is designed for students in grades
five to eight, with a goal to improve and expand
basic math skills. The camp includes a one-day
trip to the University of Alberta campus—a
highlight for many of the campers. "It is quite
inspiring to see how excited and enthusiastic
the kids are about the U of A campus," says
Bouchard. "Each year, many of them tell me that
they would really like to come here one day."
"Mathematics is more like an art. It can be hard to explain what we do."—Vincent Bouchard
The camp has been a massive success, nearly
doubling its enrolment in its first three years. Math
is all about numbers, so the significance is not lost
on anyone that 71 per cent of students showed
measurable improvement in math skills after
attending the camp. Additionally, in the 2016
Canada-wide Mathletics Challenge, Ermineskin
Elementary school placed 34th out of 635 participating schools across Canada.
Despite its reputation for difficulty—or maybe
as a direct result of it—the study of mathematics
holds an undeniable attraction for those in its thrall.
"Mathematicians are not often understood," reflects
Bouchard. "Mathematics is more like an art. It can be
hard to explain what we do."
Perhaps it is the challenge of teaching an intimidating topic, or simply the intrinsic appeal of
pure, curiosity-driven research—the simplicity of
approaching a problem stripped down to its most
basic parts—that compels so many of these artists
to share their passion with others.
Whatever the reason, there is no question that it
is a love worth sharing—and sharing broadly.