Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University News Bureau

1997-1998 index

Distributed October 23, 1997
Contact: Scott Turner

Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching

Thomas F. Banchoff named 1997 Rhode Island Professor of the Year

Thomas F. Banchoff, professor of mathematics at Brown University, has been named the 1997 Rhode Island Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement for Teaching. He is the fifth Brown professor to win the award since its establishment in 1981.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Thomas F. Banchoff has been named the 1997 Rhode Island Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement for Teaching.

Banchoff, a professor of mathematics, will be honored Friday, Oct. 24, at 6:30 p.m., during campus ceremonies to dedicate the Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning.

Known for offering real-world examples of math concepts, Banchoff has made math come alive to Brown University students since 1967. Visit his freshman calculus class, for example, and there he stands, arms extended, twisting four hinged sticks into squares, rectangles and other quadrilaterals, while peppering students with questions about functions associated with calculating each shape's area. Use of the sticks allows Banchoff to help students visualize how calculus - the study of functions - works.

A researcher at the forefront of computer graphics and four-dimensional geometry, Banchoff embraces computer use to stimulate student-professor interaction. The website for his calculus class offers weekly challenge problems that spark collaborative thinking and provide opportunities for students to generate ideas based on those of their peers.

Banchoff knows that students often draw the line at studying mathematics. Given the chance, many students will avoid math even if the move cuts them off from different career options. He considers it his job to provide a mathematical experience as a valuable part of the liberal education offered to Brown students.

"I try to set up a framework where students work hard because their teacher is working hard," said Banchoff, the fifth Brown professor to win the award since its establishment in 1981. "I try to get students to be conscious of their development. I do so in a timely way by giving them a lot of work but also providing extensive feedback."

In 1980, John Hughes was a graduate student at the University of California-Berkeley, where he met Banchoff, who was attending a conference. Hughes, now an assistant professor of computer science at Brown, said that in their brief 1980 chat, Banchoff helped him, an uncertain graduate student, with a mathematical proof, while displaying confidence in his work. Hughes never forgot.

Banchoff has a gift for making math appealing, Hughes said. His ability to use calculus and linear algebra to create and display curves, surfaces and other visual phenomena turns math into an experimental experience. "In my discussions with Tom, I am amazed at how often he asks me for ways to best present information to introductory calculus students," Hughes said. "Tom finds teaching math to be the best part of his job."

Banchoff says that teaching is communication. It is a group enterprise, where the classroom experience is co-created by students and teachers. An effective class sparks individual learning plus a constructive shared experience, he said.

In front of his class, eyes bright behind dark-rimmed glasses, Banchoff wields the hinged sticks into a bow, striking an archer's pose for a brief second. His questions to the class about volume and variables come rapid fire. More and more students volunteer answers.

Responding to an inquiry about a computation, Banchoff places the sticks down. "As a professor it's my job to work with you to test those algorithms," he said. "How do we do it? By testing hard cases. How do we know what a hard case is? By experience."

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, a policy center located in Princeton, N.J., is devoted to strengthening America's schools and colleges. This year, the Carnegie Foundation announced Professor of the Year winners in 48 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The Professor of the Year Program is administered for the Carnegie Foundation by CASE, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.