Utah State University mathematician Nathan Geer understands the challenges his students face as they work toward learning new mathematical skills. After all, he’s been working to solve certain math problems for years.
“I encounter students who get discouraged because they can’t solve a problem immediately and I empathize with them,” says Geer, assistant professor in USU’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics, who joined USU in 2009. “But I explain that ‘getting stuck’ is part of the process. The challenge is to get ‘unstuck.’”
Like many branches of knowledge, mastering mathematics requires “doing it over and over again,” he says. “And like many disciplines, mathematics has its own vocabulary.”
To make this learning process more accessible, Geer is developing a new approach to math learning. Specifically, his aim is to help undergrads more easily navigate the basic principles of calculus: the mathematical study of change and an essential gateway to advanced study in science, engineering and economics.
His efforts and proposal garnered a 2015 Faculty Early Career Development ‘CAREER’ Award from the National Science Foundation. The NSF’s top grant program for early career development of junior faculty, CAREER Awards are given in recognition of demonstrated excellence in research, teaching and the integration of education and research. Geer’s award provides a five-year grant of approximately $450,000.
“We’re thrilled Nathan has received this highly competitive and well-deserved recognition,” says Lisa Berreau, professor and interim dean of USU’s College of Science. “He is making significant progress in research and creating meaningful learning opportunities for his students.”
Though calculus is well-defined, Geer says students need a succinct introduction to its main ideas.
“Students are often overwhelmed by higher math,” he says. “Before they give up, I want to give students a positive perspective on mathematics and show them how to use math as a tool to develop the mind.”
Geer envisions a series of three-to-five-minute podcasts that students can preview prior to each lecture. Each podcast would briefly explain the main point of day, acquaint students with vocabulary and orient them to new material.
“Students don’t want to read a long, detailed textbook,” he says. “The podcasts would help students understand the core message of the lecture and expose them to key terminology, so the lectures don’t sound foreign.”
Within USU’s Mathematical Physics Group, Geer is also working with graduate students to help them become better teachers.
“The grad students will also be making podcasts and learning how to distill complex information into more compact introductions that capture the essence of what’s happening,” he says.
Beyond teaching, Geer is active in research. Named the College of Science’s 2013 Faculty Researcher of the Year, he studies low-dimensional topology and representation theory. He travels to France on sabbatical during the 2015-16 academic year, where he’ll conduct research as a visiting scholar at Université Paris Diderot (better known as “Paris 7.”)
“I love the beauty of mathematics,” he says. “There’s a huge amount of mathematics waiting to be discovered.”
Contact: Nathan Geer, 435-797-0755, email@example.com
Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517, firstname.lastname@example.org