Pi in the sky: The art of teaching mathematics

Mathematics Professor Dragos Hrimiuc on calculus, community, and creating connections.

Katie Willis - 10 June 2019

Professor of mathematics, Dragos Hrimiuc, laughing with students in his office

Dragos Hrimiuc, professor in the Department of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, confesses that being a teacher is the best job in the world. His students keep him energetic and excited about learning. Photo by John Ulan.

Today, you'll get one dollar. Tomorrow, you'll get 50 cents. The next day, a quarter of a dollar, then an eighth, a sixteenth, and so on. If this goes on forever, will you be rich or will you be poor?

"Well, you'll only ever be two dollars richer than you are now, so the answer really depends on you," said Dragos Hrimiuc (mathematical and statistical sciences). "This is the concept of series. When I teach about series, I start class with this example. That way, students have a concrete understanding from the outset."

Hrimiuc has been teaching concepts like these for more than 23 years. And over the last quarter century, he has been the recipient of numerous teaching and leadership awards, including the Rutherford Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences (PIMS) Education Prize, and various student-selected accolades.

"It is these that mean the most to me-the ones that are selected by students," Hrimiuc explained. "It is not set up or selected by faculty committees. Instead, it is selected by students. Each year, different students select the winner." Hrimiuc has won an impressive six times.

Hrimiuc, who teaches all levels of mathematics courses-from introductory undergraduate classes all the way to advanced graduate courses, is much beloved by his pupils. The secret to his success? Being passionate and knowledgeable.

Not just the numbers

"What I'm doing, I'm doing with passion," Hrimiuc explained. "This is easy because I like what I teach. I see teaching as the art of conveying hard scientific knowledge in the simplest way while connecting to our audience emotionally to drive more engagement."

As for the second element, being knowledgeable seems like a given for any teacher. But, Hrimiuc explains, teaching is much more than presenting knowledge. "It requires enthusiasm, dedication, enjoyment of the work, and a lot of creativity to stimulate learning," he said. "Most of the time, my lectures between different sections are completely different because I am creating as I teach and try to transform a monotonous routine into an exciting challenge. Of course, you cannot be creative if you are not knowledgeable. It is very important to know a lot about the subject to keep the motion of presentation, the flow through the material.

"You have to understand how the brain of the student works in order to transmit knowledge. When I look in the eyes of my students, I can see if I maintain their interest or if they understand my explanations. I catch the moment when the idea clicks. You have to look at your class and understand what that moment looks like to be a good teacher."

Calculus and community

But Hrimiuc's passion for inspiring a love of mathematics in his students doesn't stop there. He's also committed to bringing this inspiration to a younger generation, namely Albertan high school students through the Alberta High School Mathematics Competition. The annual competition engages approximately 800 students from across the province, who compete for cash prizes in two competition phases.

"We want to encourage high school students to work on challenging problems, which could inspire them to become good mathematicians," explained Hrimiuc. "Solving complex math problems improves the ability to think clearly and creatively. We have to educate students to participate in math competitions, which can provide a challenging, engaging math experience. Competitions teach students that effective performance requires a lot of practice."

Back on the University of Alberta campus, Hrimiuc is also famous for his open review sessions, held twice each semester-once for the midterm and once for the final. The sessions, held in the 500-person lecture theatres in the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science, are standing room only for two hours. Attendees are invited to make an optional donation, about the value of a cup of coffee.

"Maybe one dollar, maybe five dollars," he said with a laugh. "After each session, I count up the change. It usually takes me a couple of hours." The funds are then donated to a charity, usually the Stollery Children's Hospital or the Alberta Cancer Foundation. Since 2006, Hrimiuc has raised more than $22,000.

"I love my students. I want to see them succeed. To be a teacher is one of the best jobs you could have. I'm surrounded by young people. They keep me feeling energetic and excited about learning."

Amazing alumni

In his 23 years at the University of Alberta, Dragos Hrimiuc has taught more than 9,000 students in 120 classes. He's met many of his students after they've left the classroom-even once while on vacation in Paris. Many times, he says, former students will just stop by his office to talk.

Have a favourite moment you'd like to share? Email us at science.contours@ualberta.ca.