Ada Lovelace Day: remembering Shirley Theis and Evelyn Silvia

In case you didn't know it - today is Ada Lovelace Day!

Now, as any self-respecting Computer Science degree-wielding person should, I, too, think it's important to celebrate the day named after the world's very first programmer.

For me, the first math teacher I remember making a big difference was Shirley Theis - who taught me Algebra in 8th grade at McKinley Middle School in Redwood City, CA. Mrs Theis, an energetic dynamo in her mid fifties, was a deeply motivated and caring teacher, who expected a lot out of her students, but never in a disciplinary manner. She was full of enthusiasm, which projected out and infected even the most timid or disaffected student: in her class, you couldn't be just a sack of potatoes planted in your seat.

She often lead class in a nearly theatrical manner - pacing back and forth, egging students on by eagerly repeating their partial responses, getting exponentially more excited if the student was on the right track, barely containing herself from jumping up and down in anticipation of that lightbulb going off -- and yet just as quickly waning in her enthusiasm,becoming a personified caricature of hopelessness and despair to let you know the instant a response was starting to go astray.

It may have been the only math class I've ever taken where there were group assignments - we would work with a partner or a few classmates in trying to figure out an assignment, first trying it solo, and then putting our heads together to figure out why our answers disagree and which is the right one. I believe it was Mrs. Theis who succinctly captured a value I hold in high regard: "it's not about how far you go - it's about how many people you bring with you."

There was one other mathematics teacher I had in my life who clearly stands out: it was Professor Evelyn Silvia who had a comparable level of enthusiasm and energy, and from whom I had the pleasure of taking the first upper-division math course (Math 108 - Intro to Abstract Math) during my second quarter at UC Davis. Dr. Silvia was the real deal - she cared, gesticulated, encouraged us to question why something was true, and had an approach which demanded we each take ownership of our education. The book for the course, Introduction to Abstract Mathematics: A Working Excursion by D.O. Cutler and E.M. Silvia was a blue workbook - each of us had our own copy, and there were blanks left out for us to write our own answers to the exercises. The fact that the book had blanks for me to fill in was so inviting, there was a kind of "working mathematician" approach that came with it with that it made me really enjoy and look forward to working through the material. I still have mine.

Dr. Silvia was incredibly sharp, not just intellectually but also interpersonally. Not only could she gauge when the class was lost, but she also had a knack for spotting if something was affecting you outside of class. She was really committed to helping you not just as a student, but as a person. I remember spending hours at Mishka's, or Cafe Roma, or the CoHo, reading and writing, wanting to do well and not let Silvia down, because she invested so much energy and placed a great deal of trust in us.

So thank you both, Shirley Theis and Evelyn Silvia - you both encouraged me to grow a lot as a person, challenged my concept of what it means to be a student, and by your example provided a template of what it means to be an effective teacher, which I've imitated and embraced with pleasure in my own teaching.

(tagged scipy to spread word of Ada Lovelace day to Planet SciPy)

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