April 24, 2014

by Alyssa Eckles, Published March 22, 2010

It isn't often that beloved Muppets characters and mathematics coincide, but for some of Andrew Ross's classes, it should be expected

When it's time to teach the Markov Chain in class, Ross brings out a stuffed Kermit the Frog, recently wrestled away from his children.

"Imagine a frog is leaping from one lily pad to another," Ross explains, complete with hopping motion on the part of Kermit. "It doesn't matter where he came from, it's where he is now that determines where he goes next."

Showing students how the Markov Chain, a discrete random process, works through relatable and understandable examples - such as a frog who takes hopping one pad at a time - is what sets Ross apart as a faculty member. As a result of such innovation, Ross is the recent recipient of the Ronald W. Collins Distinguished Faculty Teaching I Award.

The Ronald W. Collins Distinguished Faculty Award is the highest honor a faculty member can receive at EMU. Four to six faculty members are honored each year for teaching, research and other categories. The Teaching I award is given to a faculty member with less than five years teaching at EMU. Each recipient receives a plaque and a $3,500 honorarium.

"I was just amazed when I found out I had won," said Ross, admitting he was stunned that he had been selected over other excellent applicants.

Ross seemed destined to become a mathematics teacher. His mother was a math professor at a community college in California. During his undergraduate studies at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., one of Ross's professors told him that he was " a born teacher." When he started to see connections between all of his math classes, noticing how different concepts tie together, Ross knew teaching mathematics was his goal.

After receiving his master's degree and doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, Ross took a postdoctoral position researching electric power grid policies. He went on to teach at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., for four and one-half years, and continued on to join the EMU faculty in 2006.

Ross's classes range from general education requirements to graduate courses, but each course focuses on making mathematics applicable to every person.

"At the lower level, it's helping people understand enough math to be good citizens and voters," said Ross. "At the upper level, it's helping people understand how math works in engineering and other fields."

One of the projects Ross is particularly excited about takes place in the Math 110 course. Ross uses "Reacting to the Past" - primarily a technique for teaching history and promoted at EMU by professor Mark Higbee - in which students act as senators in 1935 to debate the logistics behind Social Security.

"When you place it in history, it dampens the feelings on an issue," Ross said, adding the technique makes discussions more about the mathematical facts rather than political stances.

Whether it's using frogs as illustrations for the Markov Chain or asking students to act as 1935 senators, Ross strives to offer practicality and application to the mathematics he teaches, no matter the subject. He even allows students to choose their own projects and, in some cases, what will be taught in the course.

The survey of mathematical software, an upper-level course where Ross and his students explore different computer software, is new to the mathematics department. Ross allows the students to choose which programs they are most interested in learning, such as MatLab, Excel or Python. If there's a software package Ross isn't familiar with, he invites other faculty members to guest-teach those packages. Faculty members have even stopped by the course just to participate, learning along with the students in the computer labs.

Ross said he is quite busy with teaching four courses, as well as assisting students who need advice on their projects. He admits he feels like he's barely staying afloat, but the work doesn't seem to get him down.

"I really love that Eastern is a school of opportunity," Ross said. "Students that didn't have the same opportunities in high school, or students returning from working, I get to work with them."

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