Story by Kayla Harrell, Staff writer
A chemist, a physicist and a mathematician are stranded on an island with nothing but a can of beans. The chemist suggests they heat the can over a fire to make it burst open. The physicist suggests they pull back a palm tree and let it swing so the can hits a nearby rock to break it open. The mathematician says, “Suppose we had a can opener.”
Alexandra Carney, senior from Paris, Tennessee, said the joke resembles the sense of humor mathematics professor Robert Donnelly uses in his teaching.
“He always told us jokes. We were always laughing in his class,” said Brooke Croel, sophomore from Bruce, Wisconsin. “I would make jokes in class all the time. He would add onto them and next thing you know, the whole class went from learning algebra to hysterically laughing.”
Donnelly received the 2016 Kentucky Mathematical Association of America (KYMAA) Distinguished Teaching Award.
The requirements to be nominated for this award include: being a mathematical science college professor for at least part time during the academic year in the U.S. or Canada, more than seven years of mathematical science teaching experience, holding a Mathematical Association of America membership and being widely recognized as successful, effective and influential in their mathematical teaching, according to KYMAA teaching award guidelines.
Edward Thome, Mathematics and Statistics Department chairman, said in his support of Donnelly’s nomination for the 2016 KYMAA Distinguished Teaching Award, Donnelly is personable and brings his students and participants to a level of understanding.
“This is one of the nicest honors I’ve ever received,” Donnelly said. “I feel like it is undeserved and mainly due to the many students and colleagues who have encouraged and inspired me over the years.”
He has taught in the Mathematics and Statistics Department at Murray State since 1997.
“When I was in college, I absolutely fell in love with mathematics – not mathematics as an inert collection of results, but mathematics as an enterprise that moves forward through discussion and connection with other people,” Donnelly said. “That’s why I chose to teach mathematics.”
Thome said Donnelly teaches a variety of courses, from service classes, such as mathematical concepts and business calculus, to education certification courses.
“These course activities cover a broad range of purposes and students, each with its various challenges: the mathematical background of the students, the size of the class, the range of capabilities of the students in the course and the interest-level of the participants in the activity,” Thome said.
Donnelly said he also helps students on research projects, and “several times we had a collective moment of realization – a ‘eureka’ moment.”
“Once, a student and I finally got a long-awaited-for verification of a result from a program running on my office computer,” he said. “When the computer returned the result of ‘true,’ it was easily as exciting as MSU beating Vandy in the NCAA a few years ago.”
Carney and Croel said Donnelly’s passion is evident in the classroom. Croel said she took a night class with him and initially dreaded it.
“Dr. Donnelly made it so I truly wanted to learn, and I really enjoyed my night class. He is really great about explaining things multiple ways so everyone in the class understands. If the class doesn’t get it, he will work with us on it until we do,” Croel said.
Donnelly said teaching allows him to connect with students about mathematics.
“Obviously, mathematics is one of the greatest of all human imaginings, and it is perhaps unrivaled in its beauty and universality,” he said. “Not everyone experiences mathematics in this way, but my hope is that I can move my students just a little bit further in that direction.”