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CSU Channel Islands Assistant Professor Earns National Math Teaching Honor

Dr. Kathryn Leonard recognized by the Mathematical Association of America

CSU Channel Islands assistant professor of mathematics Dr. Kathryn Leonard has earned one of the highest national recognitions for new or pre-tenure math faculty.

Dr. Kathryn Leonard
Dr. Kathryn Leonard

Leonard accepted the Mathematical Association of America’s Henry L. Alder Award for Distinguished Teaching by a Beginning University Mathematics Faculty Member at MathFest 2012 held in Madison, Wis.

The award recognizes “beginning college or university faculty whose teaching has been extraordinarily successful and whose effectiveness in teaching undergraduate mathematics is shown to have influence beyond their own classrooms.” Awardees also must have a Ph.D. and two to seven years of experience teaching full-time math. They receive $1,000 and a certificate of recognition. Each year, two or three award recipients are selected from a competitive pool of nominees.

“I feel grateful to work in an environment that supports creativity in teaching, and surrounded by colleagues who so generously share insights, suggestions and ideas,” Leonard said. “I think this award speaks more about CI than it does about me.”

In the five years since she arrived at CI, Leonard has transformed previously dreaded courses such as Business Statistics into student favorites, mentored dozens of students on research projects, revamped and revitalized curriculum, influenced other faculty and educators through presentations and sharing of materials, and inspired numerous students to pursue graduate degrees and careers in math.

“I try to connect math directly to students’ interests,” Leonard said. “When a mathematical problem is tied to a problem in the world that a student wants to know how to solve, suddenly that key theorem that seemed so pointlessly tedious before shimmers with possibility.”

Leonard reluctantly discovered her own love of math after being forced to take a required calculus class as a junior English major at the University of New Mexico. She ended up double-majoring in English and math. She went on to earn her master’s degree and Ph.D. in mathematics from Brown University and then held teaching positions at Brown, the California Institute of Technology and Pomona College before coming to CI in 2006.

“Most full professors would be thrilled to have achieved what she has in the course of a 20-year career. In only five-plus years of full-time teaching, Kathryn has done so much for so many students, for the mathematical community, and for higher education in general,” said Dr. Cindy Wyels, a math professor colleague who nominated Leonard for the award. “Students who could barely imagine obtaining a four-year degree — and indeed, who had no family and few community role models with such a degree — have achieved national recognition and confidently gone on to pursue graduate degrees in the mathematical sciences.”

Former students are no less effusive.

“Dr. Leonard has a gift to keep your mind focused on the research or the task at hand,” said Michael Nava, a first-generation college graduate, now pursuing his Ph.D. in statistics and applied probability at UCSB. “Her belief in me was enough to give me the confidence that I could someday earn a Ph.D. in statistics or mathematics.”

Leonard has been asked to make a presentation at the MAA’s conference in August. She said she plans to address how learning to embrace failure makes for better scientists.

— Nancy Gill is the director of communication and marketing for CSU Channel Islands.

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