Outreach efforts of Auburn professor improving math skills for state’s students and teachers alike

AUBURN – “Fun” and “mathematics” can sometimes be like oil and water – for most people they just don’t mix. But thanks to the work of Chris Rodger, the Scharnagel Professor of Mathematical Sciences in the College of Sciences and Mathematics at Auburn University, the two terms are becoming more synonymous.

Rodger doesn’t limit his unique methods for teaching such a tricky subject to his own classroom. He has shared his expertise with teachers across Alabama so that students of all ages will learn to love math and become more engaged with the subject.

His innovative outreach addresses mathematics teaching effectiveness at the K-12 level, making the intimidating subject fun for both instructor and student alike. For this work, Rodger received the 2008 Auburn University Award for Excellence in Faculty Outreach.

“Chris Rodger is the very model of engaged scholarship,” said Royrickers Cook, assistant vice president for Auburn University outreach. “He is recognized for his teaching and research in the very highest levels of his discipline, and has put that considerable expertise to work to enhance the quality of math instruction in Alabama.”

Rodger’s faculty development programs build teachers’ confidence as well as their capacity. As a result, students receive an improved level of instruction that in turn helps them increase their performance in mathematics courses. Many of the schools Rodger assists are rural schools with limited resources and a great need to improve their mathematics instruction against the state’s accountability measures.

“Much of my activity with teachers in west Alabama and in the counties around Auburn arose from a desire to increase their content knowledge, but over time I realized that many elementary teachers unnecessarily lack confidence in their ability to do mathematics,” said Roger.

Changing this attitude, while simultaneously infusing a passion for mathematics, became one of his primary objectives.

“Outreach activities have allowed me to present mathematics to Alabama teachers in an accessible non-threatening way, giving them modern applications of mathematics, an increase in their confidence in solving problems and a heightened comfort in encouraging their students to explore mathematics.”

Mary Ann Rygiel, an Auburn resident and high school teacher, attended Rodger’s Summer Institute on Discrete Mathematics in June 2001 and said the experience had a strong positive influence on her as a teacher and thinker about mathematics as a discipline.

“If mathematics is a specialized kind of foreign language for most people, Dr. Rodger is a brilliant translator,” Rygiel wrote in a letter supporting Rodger’s nomination for the research award. “He is able to provide clear, careful explanations accessible to all levels of mathematical ability and background. Moreover, he exhibits willingness uncharacteristic of many mathematicians to use a variety of approaches in order to clarify concepts.”

Rodger’s colleagues agree that his work impacts not only K-12 teachers but ultimately their students, many of whom bring with them a changed perception of mathematics once they enter college.

“Fear of mathematics by teachers is all too readily transmitted to their students; and students entering college are disadvantaged by a transmitted misperception that mathematics is inherently difficult,” wrote Michel Smith, professor and chair of the Auburn’s Department of Mathematics in a letter supporting Rodger’s nomination. “Dr. Rodger has not only addressed this problem in his workshops but has been able to transmit the job of successfully doing creative mathematics to the participants. Participants have expressed, for them, the unexpected result of enjoying mathematics.”

Rodger’s contributions to classroom teaching have been recognized many times with external support from government and foundation grant awards including the National Science Foundation, “No Child Left Behind” and the Eisenhower Foundation. Most recently he served as one of six principal investigators on “Team Math,” which received a $9.4 million grant from the NSF and a $100,000 internal grant from Auburn University Outreach and the colleges of Education and Sciences and Mathematics.

During the past five years in this program, Rodger worked with 15 local school districts, Tuskegee University and faculty in the departments of Math Education and Mathematics to develop an aligned math curriculum that meets both the new Alabama Math Content and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics process and content standards.

Rodger balances his outreach efforts with an equally rigorous teaching schedule and research agenda, all of which has been recognized by his peers in the College of Sciences and Mathematics. Throughout the last decade, he has received every award the college offers in teaching, research, outreach and student advising and was named an Auburn University Distinguished Graduate Faculty Lecturer.

Yet Rodger’s service agenda is not limited to the scholarly world of mathematics; he is an accomplished musician, athlete and community volunteer. He plays in the first violin section of the Montgomery Symphony Orchestra and Auburn’s community orchestra. He also umpires Southeastern Conference and NCAA regional tennis matches. In addition, Rodger serves on numerous civic boards, including the East Alabama Food Bank. He has led the community committee of Auburn United Methodist Church and served a term as president of the Auburn Rotary Club.

A native of Australia, Rodger attended the University of Sydney completing his bachelor and master’s degrees before receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Reading, England. He joined Auburn University in the 1980s and was promoted to professor by 1990. In 1993, he was awarded a five-year appointment as an Alumni Professor.

He presently holds the title of Scharnagel Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics. Internationally recognized in his field, Rodger has held a number of visiting professor appointments at universities in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

(Contributed by Katie Wilder.)

Contact: Katie Wilder, (334) 844-9999 (wildeka@auburn.edu), or
Mike Clardy, (334) 844-9999 (clardch@auburn.edu)