Professor brings mathematics to life

When James Powell was a child, his dreams were similar to many boys his age. He wanted to be an astronaut, an engineer and a cowboy when he grew up. However, it was early in elementary school when he decided he wanted to do something slightly out of the ordinary.

“I actually decided I wanted to become a math professor in second grade,” Powell said. “I remember (talking) with one of my buddies. We were so excited about long division … we were just having so much fun with it.”

Though he said many aspirations have come and gone, math was the dream that stuck. He has taught math for 25 years — nearly 20 of those at USU.

Marti Garlick has worked under Powell as both a master’s and doctoral student for more than six years. Powell’s involvement and energy in the classroom bring his classes to life, she said.

“(He’s) totally engaged,” she said. “(He makes) sure students learn something.”

When a student makes a mistake in class, she said he often writes a problem out on the board in order to show where the mistake was made. This, she said, is one of the many ways he creates interaction in his classes.

Powell said one of his primary goals in the classroom is to make math apply to real life, something Garlick said she sees him doing on a constant basis.

“The real world has to collide with the theoretical world (in math),” Garlick said. “We actually have to have something that reflects processes in the real world.”

Powell said he is able to the two worlds together by telling stories that make what he’s explaining applicable. Sitting in an office surrounded by boards of equations and graphs, it would be hard to guess Powell once flirted — as a teenager and again in college — with the notion of becoming an English professor.

He said he still sees the connection between the two.

“I don’t think there’s that big of gap,” he said.

Powell said he spent a lot of time writing in college, especially while involved in various research projects. No matter what field a student is in, whether it be business or science, it’s important he or she learn how to write, he said.

While working with the honors program at Colorado State University, Powell’s job was to review ACT scores after new student orientations and flag students who would fit the program.

“The honors director at the time said, according to his analysis, the biggest determinant for success in the honors program in math and science and everything else was an ACT English score of 32 and above,” he said.

When his students aren’t writing or doing hands-on experiments in lab-based classes, Powell said he tries to engage them with conversation to keep them actively learning.

Currently, Powell teaches a biology-based math class in which he said he tries to get students involved as much as possible. This includes having them create their own mathematics. He said the one thing that sets him apart from other professors is the decibel level in his classroom.

“I’m louder and more ballistic than most professors are when they lecture — particularly (professors) in mathematics,” he said.

Like many professors, Powell said the reason he teaches is because he loves seeing “light bulbs illuminate” when his students understand something.

He cited an example a few weeks ago when he was teaching a lesson on how to fit curves and models to data, and a student who had been confused suddenly understood what he was trying to say.

“The student just looked stunned like I had smacked him with a frying pan … he had a little bit of drool,” Powell said.  “Those are moments I live for, when you really see students integrate whole bits of knowledge. There’s a lot of those.”



Property of The Utah Statesman


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