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Purdue Profs Participate in Project NExT

Brian Bergen | Mary Sandoval | Project NExT

Research Assistant Professors Brian Birgen and Mary Sandoval are both Project NExT fellows. Here they share their experiences.

Brian Birgen
Most graduate students focus solely on finishing their dissertations, without having time to consider what will happen after graduation. Suddenly we are thrust in front of a classroom with a piece of chalk and very little preparation or knowledge of what is required of a professor. Project NExT provides much-needed counsel and instruction to help us become better teachers.

My involvement with Project NExT consists of three parts. The first was a session that took place at the Mathematical Association of America's summer Mathfest in Toronto. I helped arrange two sessions for the second part, held at the joint meetings of the MAA with the American Mathematical Society in San Antonio in January. Topics covered by these sessions included writing coherent research papers and balancing a personal life with one's career goals. The final phase of my involvement with Project NExT will occur next summer in Rhode Island.

Brian Birgen Brian Birgen reviews final exam topics with his MA 265 students during the final week of classes.

Foremost among the skills which Project NExT attempts to foster is innovation in teaching. A professor with twenty years experience is likely to have an established style of teaching and may be resistant to trying new ideas. So now is the time, when we are new, to experiment with a wide variety of teaching methods to see what works best for us. Project NExT fosters a variety of teaching methodologies, including incorporating technology into teaching everything from calculus to abstract algebra, and alternative forms of grade evaluation like group homework and laboratory projects. While it would be comfortable for me to teach exactly as I was taught, improvements and adjustments to new forms of technology are needed. Through exposure to various methods, I hope to discover my own style of teaching. What I've probably found most useful in Project NExT are the sessions on "everything else": writing grant proposals, advising students, getting tenure, balancing teaching with research, and career advancement. In Toronto, Joe Gallian, of the University of Minnesota in Duluth, encouraged us to "find our niche," that is, to discover some way in which we are an asset to our department, something we do better than everyone else. Some people are good lecturers, some people are good researchers, some people are good organizers, and so on. Part of being a successful professor is to find out what you do well and then to do it.

A very important benefit of Project NExT is the connection I have made with other new professors. I've met a large number of people who are all in the same situation as I am: people who've had their Ph.D.'s less than three years and have just started teaching. I now have colleagues with whom I can compare stories and experiences. These are people who will also be using new methods and breaking new ground, and we can share our successes and failures.

I think that too many new professors haven't thought about what to expect in the classroom and are surprised and overwhelmed by all that teaching entails. Project NExT provides a bit of forewarning and helps new Ph.D.'s prepare for a successful academic career in mathematics