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Elizabeth McMahon, professor of mathematics, is the 2005 recipient of the James P. Crawford Award for Distinguished Teaching, bestowed by the Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware (EPADEL) section of the Mathematical Association of America.

The most significant teaching award for a mathematics professor in the region, the honor recognizes excellence in teaching and influence beyond the recipient’s own institution.

“The thing I am most pleased about is that it is named after Jim Crawford,” McMahon says of the late Lafayette professor for whom the award was renamed in 2003.

“Jim Crawford was the one who hired me and he was someone who was so dedicatedto the students. It’s a humbling experience. He was an amazing and wonderful teacher and it is very flattering to win an award that is named after him.”

McMahon joined the Lafayette faculty 19 years ago. She teaches classes to a broad range of students, from those who reluctantly take a math class to satisfy their graduation requirement to math majors bound for graduate school. She adapts her style to the audience, and her enthusiasm is felt by all.

“You have to draw on different things [for the different types of students] to get the students to learn the material you want them to learn. In some cases it’s not so much learning the material, it’s more an understanding of a way to think,” she says.

“For liberal arts students you want them to see there is a reason people have been doing math for so long, there is a reason it is important in the world, and that’s the reason we have a math requirement.

“Why does a biology major have to take calculus? It’s not that they need to know the derivative of sine ‘x’. But it’s more about a logical way of thinking.

“For math majors it’s getting them ready — those who choose to go — for graduate school. With them, it is more oriented toward thinking mathematically, ‘how does a mathematician approach a problem?’”

“I love being able to think up new ways to explain something. And if I come up with a way that helps students understand it better, that’s just exciting to me,” she says.

Finding new ways to teach never gets routine, she says, “because the students keep changing on me!”

“They’re coming to me with a different knowledge set than they did five years ago. [Professors] need to keep up with that. And high schools are changing what they teach, so we have to be able to teach to the strengths and weaknesses of each new class.”

Reflecting on the evolution of teaching over the past two decades, she notes that “the way we teach has changed radically. When I first started, it was all chalk and talk — you’re at the blackboard and the occasional hand might be raised with a question.”

“Now I break it up all the time. I’ll talk and do an example; the next example, which I would have done before, I give them to do. And the new example always has a wrinkle. If they understand the problem, then they are more likely to see the difference between examples one and two.”

“In the old days the feeling was ‘this is the way we teach’ and the students’ job was to accommodate. That’s less true now.”

A major difference is appreciation for the fact that people have different learning styles.

“One of the things I need to do is try to offer multiple explanations so the visual learners see what they need, the auditory learners hear what they need, and the formula-driven students get the formula they need,” says McMahon. “And you do it over and over in different ways; the hope is that by the end of that everybody in the classroom is on the page they need to be on,” she says.

McMahon has served as a mentor to scores of Lafayette students over the years, with some presenting their research at forums such as the National Conference on Undergraduate Research. Last year, mathematics-economics major Adam Rosenberg ’04 (Ocean Grove, N.J.) conducted research under her guidance analyzing how well statistics justified the selection – and omission – of players voted to Patriot League all-star baseball teams. The 2004 Patriot League Player of the Year and a member of the Academic All-District II Baseball Team, Rosenberg worked within the field of sabermetrics, the mathematical and statistical analysis of baseball records

McMahon has mentored Lafayette students through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program, an intensive, eight-week summer research experience in which undergraduate students investigate unsolved problems in mathematics.

She also has mentored high school students and faculty at other institutions through the New Experience in Teaching program.

Her research specialty is combinatorics, the study of counting concerned with the selection, arrangement, and operation of elements within sets.

McMahon loves the balance expected of Lafayette professors — excellence in research and teaching – and brings her enthusiasm for her profession to students.

“I love math, and I want students to understand there is a reason I love it, and not just that they think I’m weird. I love it because there’s something worth loving there.”

Categorized in: Academic News