Inspiring Math Teacher Embarking on Mathematical Adventures
Recipient of the 2014 “Distinguished College of University Teaching of Mathematics” award from the New Jersey Section of Mathematical Association of America (MAA), Dr. Karen Clark has been inspiring and influencing many students who have entered her classroom at TCNJ for 20 years. Professor Clark knew when she enrolled in New York University for mathematics that she would go into teaching.
Her high school math teachers had helped her to enjoy the subject and motivated her to enter academia. She continued her studies at New York University (NYU), completing her Ph.D. on mathematical modeling of composite materials. This involves applied math and theories to study materials with different properties mixing together to obtain a different set of properties. Some examples of everyday composite materials include concrete and fiber-reinforced polymers, which are utilized in buildings, vehicles, and other structures.
Looking into other ventures, Clark has starting to learn about climate modeling, which focuses on the interactions of the atmosphere, sun, ice caps, and oceans. She also continues to teach mathematical courses at TCNJ such as calculus and linear algebra. However, the MAA award-recipient’s current focus is writing a linear algebra textbook.
“I’ve taught the course enough to get the sense of what topics go well together and what order is nice to do it in.” Clark explained. Her topics course on linear algebra has no textbook available and she feels that it would benefit the students if there were one.
A basic definition of linear algebra is the study of equations and their transformations that can be represented by a matrix. Clark described applications of linear algebra with real world examples, including how Google ranks the hits when you search for something and how pictures you take are processed. “It all connects to the subject of linear algebra.” She said.
“What is difficult is that you want a lot of examples for students to do, and the examples have to work out nicely, so students don’t get frustrated.” Clark admitted that she did not anticipate this problem when writing a textbook. She has been working on this project for the past year during a sabbatical, and is continuing to do so while teaching.
Prior to TCNJ, Clark conducted post-doctoral studies at the University of Michigan for a year, followed by a year teaching at Stevens Institute of Technology. She has enjoyed working at TCNJ, in part due to the students and teaching environment at the College.
“Here at TCNJ, with the smaller classes, you really get to know the students,” Clark remarked, “especially having them semester after semester. You really can build relationships with students.”
“She is not afraid to challenge students,” Vince Longo (’15), mathematics major, said about Clark. Longo had taken Clark’s linear algebra class. Although he found it difficult, he received a greater appreciation and solid foundation on the subject. “I felt like she pushed me outside my comfort zone in her class,” Longo continued, “but not so far out that the material and assignments were out of my reach.”
Professor Clark feels that the TCNJ classroom cultivates participation and discussion among her students. This experience not only is beneficial for her as a teacher, but for students as well in their undergraduate education. The kind of relationship that Clark builds with her students made it no surprise when she received the MAA award.
“Karen is very concerned about her students’ progress and understanding, and she will spend many office hours with them outside of class.” Dr. Cathy Liebars, Co-Chair of the mathematics and statistics department, revealed.
Liebars and Clark started their careers at TCNJ the same year and have become great colleagues and friends. Liebars added that her friend was a great academic advisor to students as well. “I know this because she advises Math Secondary Education majors and I get her advisees in their junior year. They always are prepared and know what they are doing.”
In addition to making sure that her students understand her linear algebra course, Clark had brought up the importance of students exploring what the different topics their major has to offer to find their interests. College is a time for exploration and figuring out what you really enjoy doing.
“It’s going to go by really fast.” Clark commented on the years that students have at TCNJ. “They [students] are such different people four years later from when they come in.”
When she is not cultivating future math educators, Clark loves to travel with her family. “My students might not be aware that I have a bunch of children.” Clark added. She has four children at home, and every summer, she tries to spend a few weeks with her family traveling; her favorite destinations are national parks. “Travel as much as you can,” she urged. “This is a huge world.”
– Danielle Leng
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