Susan: My Back Story

Susan Crook is an assistant professor at Loras College.

Hi everyone! I’m Susan Crook and I’m delighted to be joining my esteemed colleagues as a contributor to the novice IBL blog.  I’m in my 5th year as an assistant professor at Loras College in scenic Dubuque, IA.  Before I delve into the IBL things, both new and old, I’m doing in my current courses this semester, I want to introduce myself.

I was born and raised in Oak Ridge, TN, a town created to help build the atomic bomb during WWII, a counterpart to Los Alamos, so to say that I grew up steeped in a community that loved and prioritized math and science would be an understatement.  My dad had an MD and a PhD in pharmacokinetics and my mom had a degree in art education.  My high school offered myriad Advanced Placement and for college credit courses.  When I began my undergraduate education at the University of South Carolina, my first math class was Math 574: Discrete Mathematics.

I tell you this not to brag about my family, though I am proud of them and my hometown, but to give you a context for me.  I grew up knowing that I would go to graduate school for something because it was expected. I never doubted that women could be just as good and better than men in math and science fields because I saw it all around me.  The thought that women didn’t do math and science never crossed my radar.  I never saw myself as an outstanding math student.  I was good among the best, but I wasn’t the best by any means.  In the long run, I think this helped me in graduate school because I had no illusions to be broken.  As a professor, I think it helps me to understand my students because I struggled with math and had doubts in my ability too.

After completing degrees in Math and French at USC (the South Carolina one!), I went on to North Carolina State University for my MS and PhD in Applied Mathematics.  In all of this education, I’ve had some wonderful teachers, many of them interactive lecturers, but somehow it took me until my junior year of college to have my math epiphany.  USC didn’t offer an intro proofs course, so my first introduction to proofs was the fall semester I took honors Real Analysis and honors Abstract Algebra.  After struggling with both courses for half a semester, I was studying for a test in Real Analysis when it finally hit me that it would be much easier to just understand the proof I was working on rather than memorize the steps.  It was like a switch in my brain flipped!  I started thinking about math as wholly understanding rather than a little understanding with memorization.  It changed my entire attitude toward math and likely why I pursued math grad school.

When I started teaching as a TA at NCSU, I was frustrated that I could not figure out an effective way to get my students to see that math is about problem solving and that understanding why a method works and how it was developed is more useful than just memorizing the algorithm.  Not only does it make things easier, it makes them more fun! Math changes from something we have to do into something that we want to do.  I started talking about this with other TAs, but none of us had a good solution.

The spring of my third year at NCSU, a friend forwarded me an email invitation to an IBL Workshop to be held before The Legacy of R.L. Moore Conference in Austin that summer. My friend couldn’t go due to an internship, but encouraged me to consider going.  The application was short enough, I’d never been to Austin, and the idea of a workshop and conference on teaching intrigued me, so I applied and was happy to be accepted.  I went thinking I’d learn some new teaching skills, but left having had the most transformative and influential experience in my teaching life.  This method proposed a solution to my quandary.  I still struggle to break students of their feeling that math is algorithms to be memorized, but IBL provides me with tools to help. I met so many IBL rockstars who have become mentors and friends to me.  I left that conference (and every IBL conference I’ve attended since) feeling excited and knowing that I could make a change in how my students view mathematics.

That spring as part of a fellowship at NCSU I had the opportunity to teach my own section of their intro proofs course.   During the IBL workshop, I decided I was going to teach it IBL style and since I wasn’t sure I could get approval from the course director to do this, I was going to fly under the radar and hope no one got mad at me.  That class turned out better than I could ever have imagined.  I was randomly assigned to an active learning classroom on campus with wheelie chairs with desks and white boards galore (thanks, classroom assignment gods!).  The moment that I decided that I was team IBL for life occurred in the math tutoring center which was staffed by grad students.  A few of my students were in there studying for an upcoming test.  They commandeered the whiteboard and each had a marker in hand.  They were arguing and debating over a proof and obviously enjoying the process. I had gone over once or twice to see if I could help and was shooed away as they assured me they could do it on their own.  A student I often helped asked me why there were graduate students working in the lab.  Seeing their enjoyment and confidence, so similar to mine when I worked on math, I knew IBL was for me.

Since that initial course, I have taught Real Analysis, Discrete/Intro Proofs (twice), and Calculus (twice) IBL at Loras.  These classes have had varying success and I’ve adjusted them as I’ve gone.  This semester I have two sections of Calculus I (4 credits each) and I’m using an IBL variant for the course.  I wouldn’t say it’s full IBL, but there are definitely heavy components in the course.  I’m excited to tell you about the things I’m doing in that course and to hear your advice and suggestions on how to make it better!

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