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It All Adds Up
Love of Math Brings National Teaching Honors To Professor
By Eric Gorton
Maybe not every second grader who buys math textbooks at the school book fair is destined to become a math teacher.
Dr. Laura Taalman, an assistant professor of mathematics at JMU since 2000, certainly had no intention at that age of laying the groundwork for her profession. "I just seemed to collect a lot of math books and do problems," she said. "I just liked it."
Even in college, Taalman set her sights on becoming a math researcher rather than a teacher. But the teaching bug bit when, as a graduate student at Duke University, she was required to teach. She found the experience rewarding and decided she wanted to work where she could both teach and conduct research.
It seems that excelling in teaching has come as naturally as excelling in math for Taalman. Recognized several times at Duke for her teaching, she earned national honors in August as one of three professors drawn from the United States and Canada to be given the Henry L. Alder Award for Distinguished Teaching by a Beginning College or University Mathematics Faculty Member. The Mathematical Association of America established the award in January 2003 "to honor extraordinarily successful teachers whose influence extends beyond the classroom."
In nominating Taalman for the award, a colleague stated that student demand to get into her senior-level algebra course was "two to three times the normal level" even though her courses are known to be very demanding. The nomination also noted that Taalman developed an integrated calculus and pre-calculus class that has brought a much larger group of students into the mainstream science calculus track and led the biology department to move all its students into the mainstream track.
While always interested in math, Taalman said the subject required some effort. "I liked it, but I wouldn't say it was easy. It was interesting. I had to work really hard."
And she expects nothing less than hard work from her students. "I assign a lot of work, I collect a lot of work, or in the classes where I don't actually collect a lot of work, I still assign a lot of work and manage to find ways to test whether or not that work is actually being done," she said.
One of the tricks of her trade is rolling a die at the beginning of classes to determine what homework problems will be collected. "It's sort of a good ice breaker," she said, "and it sort of makes homework collection not my fault when it happens."
Of course, that means students better do all their homework or hope for a lucky roll.
"I expect them to perform at a very high level," Taalman said. "I might be nice to the students, but that doesn't mean I'm giving them good grades or being easy on them. What's the point of making everything dumbed down?"
Her enthusiasm for her discipline is a key to her success. "I genuinely like talking about math so I don't go in there thinking, 'OK, now I have to try to be fun to make it fun,'" Taalman said. "Everybody has their different way of teaching that works for them. Some people are authoritarian and that works for them, some people try to be very buddy-buddy with the students and that works for them. I think I'm sort of both of those things. But I think it's very important to have fun or your students are going to fall asleep and they're not going to care."
For some students, math is a struggle whether Taalman makes it interesting or not. Although she hates to point a finger at high schools, she says a lot of her students come to JMU unprepared for college-level math.
"I really do think these students come in, sort of, you know — they're missing something. It's not their fault. They're missing the ability to think about things logically. They can calculate some things; they understand following an algorithm. But they don't understand, if you give them a problem and they don't know how to solve it, how do they start thinking about the problem? Their brains aren't wired for this."
While the students may not be prepared, she says, they are capable of catching on: "If they try and they're willing to sort or reorder the way their brain works, I think they can do it."
Regarding women's mathematical ability — a subject of much controversy this year following remarks by Harvard University President Lawrence Summers — Taalman says women tend to be less confident, but no less capable. Summers touched off a firestorm in January when he suggested at a conference that innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers. Taalman said she disagrees with Summers remarks, but was not offended by them.
Many females take a class she teaches for underprepared students only to find they could have succeeded without it, Taalman said. And, sometimes, their lack of confidence works in their favor, driving them to work harder, she added.
As for math textbooks, Taalman is writing her own these days. In 2004, Houghton Mifflin published her first text, "Integrated Calculus," and has asked her to co-author another on engineering calculus.
Published August 2005 by JMU Media Relations