UW News

February 14, 2008

For the love of math: Morrow nurtures mathematicians, at work and at home

UW News

James Morrow was cycling in Montana when the big news arrived: He had won the nation’s most prestigious prize for higher-level math education. For those who know the UW professor, neither of these facts should come as a surprise. He has been an avid touring cyclist for decades. And his work with students, including a 2003 Distinguished Teaching Award from the UW, is tough to match.

But among the hundreds of accumulated e-mails, he almost missed a message from the Mathematical Association of America saying he’d won one of three Haimo Distinguished Teaching Awards given out this year. Morrow accepted the honor in San Diego in January.

“I knew that if you won the regional award they think of you as a candidate for the national prize. But it really surprised me that I won it,” Morrow said. “It was great.”

Morrow, on the UW faculty since 1969, is a well-respected lecturer. His innovations include a thesis project for a second-year honors calculus course and mentoring of students. But it’s his many other activities that really put the UW’s math outreach on the map.

Morrow is the driving force behind Mathday (http://www.outreach.washington.edu/k12/mathday/), going strong since 1991. Some 1,200 students visit the UW campus on the Monday of spring break to learn about how math is used in the real world. Eleventh- and 12th-grade visitors do everything from visiting the planetarium to seeing mathematical card tricks to learning the secrets of Sudoku.

As far as he knows, Morrow said, Mathday is the largest math event of its kind aimed at high school students. The Kauffman-Rebassoo Professor of Mathematics, which Morrow holds, is funded by Vaho Rebassoo, one of his first doctoral students, and George Kauffman, a fan of Mathday.

Another unique math-centered experience that owes a great deal to Morrow’s influence is a 20-year-old Research Experience for Undergraduates (http://www.math.washington.edu/~reu/), a national program in which a dozen top undergraduates from across the country spend eight weeks at the UW attending lectures and doing research.

“That’s when I get to take students and teach them what mathematics is about,” Morrow explained. “We get to work together as colleagues.” Sometimes they even co-author a paper.

Morrow doesn’t consider the summer program, which comes on top of his regular teaching duties and research career, as a burden.

“I love interacting with the students,” he said. “I learn a lot. Students try the craziest things, but there’s always the germ of something interesting.”

A few years ago, building on the success of the undergraduate program, Ron Irving, now the interim dean of Arts and Sciences, and Morrow set out to create something similar for younger groups. So began the Summer Institute for Mathematics at the UW, SIMUW (http://www.math.washington.edu/~simuw/thisyear/). The program draws 24 high school students from across the Northwest including Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Alaska and British Columbia. Morrow selects the teaching assistants and participants for the six-week program.

“The first thing I’m looking for is someone who doesn’t give up,” Morrow says of his selection process. He should know something about endurance. Morrow has completed 13 marathons and 12 RAMRODs (Ride Around Mt. Rainier in One Day), as well as cycling across the United States.

And of course there’s the Mathematical Modeling Contest (http://uwnews.org/uweek/uweekarticle.asp?articleid=32661). In the past six years, under Morrow’s coaching, the UW has scored seven wins in the grueling international competition.

While Morrow is quick to credit the teams’ success to “fantastic students,” the repeat wins suggest that coaching may play a role. Members of winning teams report that he provides ample coaching and support.

“It’s a serious competition, but he keeps the fun in it,” said Jeffrey Eaton, a graduate student in statistics and member of a winning modeling team.

The various programs seem to build on each other. Winning modeling teams often include students, such as Eaton, who previously participated in the Research Experience for Undergraduates. Last year, one of the winning teams was made up of three students who attended SIMUW while they were in high school.

Morrow stresses that his educational outreach programs are not meant as recruiting tools, and the undergraduate research program is not intended as training for graduate work. If the students come to the UW, as many have done, he’s happy to see them. But he’s equally pleased to see them go to Berkeley, Harvard or elsewhere.

“All I want these students to do is to stay enthusiastic about mathematics,” he said. “It’s a success if they persist and keep enjoying mathematics.”

Selim Tuncel, chair of the Mathematics Department, commented: “There are very few mathematicians who are as versatile as Jim. This allows him to let the students follow their interests.” Tuncel added, “He is great at motivating the students, and getting them excited about mathematics.”

Morrow grew up in Arkansas and Texas. Neither of his parents attended college but they both enjoyed math, he says. A high school teacher saw potential in Morrow and gave him some calculus textbooks, and he was hooked. He majored in mathematics at the California Institute of Technology and earned his doctorate at Stanford University. Morrow’s brother also studied mathematics in college.

The family tradition continued. Morrow’s daughter studied computer science at Stanford and now works a math-intensive job as a software engineer at Microsoft. His son studied mathematics at Harvard and worked for many years as a hedge fund manager. (No word yet on whether his two baby grandchildren are math whizzes.)

“I think there’s something that runs in families, about whether you like math or not,” Morrow admitted.

Morrow clearly does love math, and is able to share that joy with an academic family that counts hundreds, if not thousands, of former students. “I love solving problems. And I love seeing how math fits together to solve problems,” he said. “I think math is fantastic, and I can’t think of a better place to be doing it than the UW.”