If you raise an eyebrow at the idea of math being fun or enjoyable, spend some time in a classroom with Chris Tweddle. The Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Governors State University knows just how you feel.
“Math gets a bad rap and makes people feel nervous,” he said. “But I hope to get students to stop thinking about the way they experienced math before, to see that math can be fun and that you can solve interesting problems with it. It’s not just manipulating symbols and solving for X.”
Tweddle grew up in a family where brain teasers were part of the dinner table conversation, led by a father who was a computer scientist and a mother who taught pre-school. As someone who enjoyed solving problems, he was drawn not just to math but to teaching it at the college level. “The challenge of higher level mathematics was as important to me as being able to share that information and help students learn it,” he said.
At GSU, where he joined the faculty in 2013 and was recently named Associate Director of the General Education Council, Tweddle has a chance to change minds about math. Among courses he teaches is Smart Start, the two-week academic boost for incoming freshmen, and the Junior Seminar, a bridge course that stretches beyond computational math courses like algebra, calculus, and differential equations to theoretical abstract math—which Tweddle considers “the heart and soul of what math is all about.”
When it comes to his own research, Tweddle is an applied mathematician, which means he uses math to solve real-world questions. He recently came up with an unusual twist on the latest trend of using quantitative analysis to look at sports statistics. Most “big data” focuses on professional baseball and football. But Tweddle, a devoted cyclist, focused his attention on the Tour de France. He recently presented a paper on his findings at an academic conference.
GSU Newsroom: What appeals to you about math?
Tweddle: Applied math is a wide-open field. You just have to have the idea that you can use this equation in a way that other people haven’t. Also, I like the challenge of solving problems, which is what mathematics is all about—how these ideas fit together to tell you more about the topic. In math, you have to be very attentive to the details. Reading math is painfully slow. It can take five or ten minutes to read a page of mathematics because of all the details and ideas that are densely packed together. You’ve got to make sure you understand how all the connections work.
GSU Newsroom: Why do so many people seem to struggle with math, even as children?
Tweddle: A lot of people have the misconception that math is just a lot of equations and calculations with numbers. In elementary school, it’s all arithmetic and timed tests. It’s horrible! No wonder kids hate math coming out of high school. If we taught English the same way, in grammar school you’d just do spelling tests. In middle school, you’d diagram sentences or work on noun-verb agreement. Maybe not until you’re at the upper level in high school would you get to read and write interesting things.
GSU Newsroom: What approach do you take at the college level?
Tweddle: In calculus, a general education course for math and science majors, I incorporate some modeling and simulation. These applications aren’t groundbreaking, but it’s interesting to show how these tools can be used, which is helpful for students who want to know how calculus will help them with analysis in chemistry or biology.
Applied calculus also is required for business majors. When they ask why they have to take it, I tell them calculus is the tool people use to solve optimization problems. If you want to maximize the profit or minimize the cost, those are calculus-based problems. And since people tend to resist math, people who do have those analytical skills get jobs that pay well and have high job security. If you want to stand out and move ahead, those skills are going to look great on your resume.
GSU Newsroom: What do you like about teaching GSU students?
Tweddle: A lot of them haven’t had a good experience with math, and I hope I’m changing their perception of it by offering them an opportunity to do it with confidence and see that it can be interesting. Being fluent in numbers, or quantitative literacy, is essential to being a good citizen. You can’t read a news story without statistics being thrown at you, and if you don’t understand stats, it’s dangerous. You can be misled by them or shut them out. To be a good consumer of that information, you need to have some positive experience with it and understand it.
GSU Newsroom: Is there anything that makes you laugh about being a math professor?
Tweddle: The quickest way to kill a conversation at a social event is to tell someone you’re a math professor and start talking about your research!