When Professor of Mathematics Teresa Magnus isn’t busy teaching undergrad and grad students at Rivier, you might find her running through the woods at Pawtuckaway State Park in Nottingham, NH, dodging her way around boulders and swamps while she collects control flags—all part of the sport of orienteering. “It’s a great activity for learning map reading, direction finding, and problem solving,” says Magnus, who thrives on solving puzzles and wants her students to share that same sense of accomplishment in the classroom.
Magnus, who has taught at Rivier since 1998 and currently directs the Math Education program, tries to draw in reluctant students by using a patterns approach. In one class, she places students in small groups of three to five and instructs them to shake hands with everyone in the group. Then, she asks, how many handshakes took place in your group? Simple enough. But what if the group size were to continue to grow to 100 or 200? How would you calculate how many handshakes took place? It’s all part of understanding patterns and using calculations to find answers, she explains.
A geometer who has always loved mathematics, Magnus describes “that ‘aha’ flash of intuition,” that comes with finding a solution. “You could call it a mathematical high,” she says.
Aside from her strong interest in patterns and problem solving, Magnus is firmly grounded in quantitative literacy. The Quantitative Literacy Class she teaches “is based on the reality that everyone needs math and reasoning skills in daily living,” she says. Can you do your taxes? Balance a checkbook? Make sense of numbers in a business report?
“Mathematics is important in many fields,” says Magnus, who has published and presented on voting theory and elections. “If there are more than two candidates in an election, the way in which the election is run can make a big difference in the outcome.” She explores with students how election results can become skewed when there are multiple candidates, resulting in a run-off election.
The challenge is to encourage students to think independently and take risks. Many “come to class having learned math only through observing examples,” notes Magnus. She doesn’t tell students how to solve a problem, she invites them to explore solutions on their own.
As she guides and prepares the next generation of math teachers, Magnus says she sees many career changers who worked in engineering or business decide to enter the classroom. The Master of Arts in Teaching Math program, which integrates mathematical study and educational theory, requires 75 hours of classroom observation.
“From the beginning, we encourage them to go beyond classroom observation and to present mini-lessons and assist students,” says Magnus. The approach pays off, since many graduate students are hired even before they complete the two-year program.
“Most students think that you either get math or you don’t,” says Magnus. But “You can get it…with work,” she says. The challenge is to motivate students to put in the time and effort to discover solutions on their own.