Math prof wants
his students to know they're number one
"What do you call 10 to the power of 100?"
asks Prof. Jack
Weiner, Mathematics and Statistics. On this evening, blank
stares emit from some 300 first-year math students in the
MacNaughton Building classroom.
"It's called a google," says Weiner. A few giggles
about the google from the class. "Know why it's called
a google?" He searches the faces of the students, who
begin to display more interest. "Because the computer
scientist who came up with the term was trying to think of
a word that sounded really big (Weiner's voice rises). And
he was looking for this word and he was at home rocking his
baby, and then all of a sudden, his baby looked at him and
said, in baby talk . . . "
"Google," choruses the class, getting it.
Count that as one lesson that won't have to be taught again
to this particular group of students. "At the end of
one of my classes," says Weiner, "I want students
to say: 'Is it over already?'"
Super-teacher Weiner (1992 U of G Faculty Association Teaching
Award, 1993 Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations
Teaching Award) has devoted his career at U of G to making
sure each and every student who passes through his classroom
doors understands that one is a prime number, and they happen
to be that one. "I do everything in my power to ensure
the honest success of every one of my students," he says.
Weiner's bag of tricks is large - some would say infinite.
He questions, he cajoles, he raises his voice to catch students'
attention, then lowers it so that students strain to catch
what he's saying. He prepares special handouts for every class
and then is scrummed by students at the end of a session,
patiently answering each of their questions in turn. He uses
mnemonics and anecdotes to get them to remember, as with one
particular mathematical term that he tells students is "our
famous beer point: 2,4."
Most of all, he encourages discussion. Singling out one student,
he tells the rest of the class: "He's got it. If you
don't, get his e-mail address or go over to his room and find
out how he did it."
Students love Weiner. An April 5 editorial in the Ontarion
called him "a mathematical god. . . . If you haven't
taken calculus with Dr. Weiner and have an elective hanging
around, do yourself a favour." He's also a perennial
"Favourite Prof" in the Maclean's magazine
Guide to Universities profile of Guelph.
Walking across campus, Weiner is frequently stopped by students
wanting to pick his brain. They know they won't get a pat
answer, but probably something that teases them in the right
direction. The students love him for it, for his earnest enthusiasm.
Take undergraduate Ann Jakabfy's appraisal, for example, which
she wrote in an e-mail to Weiner: "I am only in your
class because it was my prerequisite for my major, but do
you know what? I love it! You are a reason why students pay
all that money to go to this school. I never had a teacher
inspire me to actually want to go to class. You are one of
those few teachers that help students live up to their potential.
Thank you for making math fun."
Drama major Paloma Nunez credits Weiner with giving her the
confidence to pursue a minor in mathematics. "I believe
anyone could learn calculus from him, even my mother,"
says Nunez. "He teaches with clarity and precision, he
explains things well and he's always enthusiastic about his
material. It's clear that he loves what he does."
Another place students interrupt Weiner is where he can usually
be found at noon: on a stationary bike in the Athletics Centre.
He says he started working out in graduate school because
he was beginning to gain weight. From home every morning,
he takes long runs with his two dogs, Kelly, a golden retriever,
and Denver, a malamute-husky-shepherd-wolf mix.
"I take being fit very seriously," he says. "For
one thing, it tops up my energy for class. After running or
being on the bike, I'm all ready to teach."
And make no mistake, students in Weiner's class work hard.
Seeing some students close their books near the end of class,
Weiner waves his hands in the air. "Three minutes left
in the class, three minutes! You can't have them; they're
my three minutes. We're still learning."
The blackboard is his main prop, his giant painter's palette.
He uses it to mix his knowledge with the budding ideas of
his students, who call out potential answers to problems-in-motion.
Because his style is dependent on participation, Weiner worries
about larger classrooms, locations like War Memorial Hall,
where students may feel intimidated about taking part in class.
His subject is numbers; his students aren't.
He also worries about some teaching technologies like PowerPoint
that are everything except interactive.
"The blackboard and the overhead, both of which I can
write on while talking to the class, are essential to my teaching,
because my style is to get students to develop answers and
formulae with me. I can't do that on a laptop with PowerPoint,
where everything has to be inputted beforehand."
Preparation is key to Weiner's success at teaching. He has
a checklist he follows. "I have to understand my learning
objectives, I have to prepare carefully and choose examples
for class strategically so that students see concepts in action,
I have to bring energy and enthusiasm to the classroom, I
have to involve the students interactively, and I have to
choose homework that reinforces the concepts learned."
Students notice. "The hard work that Prof. Weiner puts
into every lecture he gives is clearly noticed and much appreciated,"
says Jakaby. "He has inspired me to put more solid effort
into my work."
Weiner, who holds a master's degree in mathematics from the
University of Waterloo and a bachelor of education from Queen's,
first came to U of G in the mid-1970s. He spent two years
on campus as a math instructor and co-ordinator of the Department
of Mathematics and Statistics' learning centre, then decided
to head back to high school - as a math teacher. After teaching
high school for five years, he was invited back to U of G
to teach and do liaison work with high school math teachers
and students. He's never regretted the decision.
"If I was still at Parkside High School in Dundas, I'd
be teaching great kids," he says, "but at the University,
I've written a major textbook and educational resource pamphlets,
I've spoken at conferences, and I get to challenge students
as well as myself every day. As a high school teacher, I had
a great job. Teaching at university, I've had a great life."
One high school program Weiner would like to resurrect from
the 1980s is his Super Math Club. This was a math enrichment
program he developed at U of G for high school students and
teachers living within a 200-kilometre radius of campus.
Unlike other math groups, the club was not competitive, he
says. "There were no evaluations. Instead, it was an
opportunity to involve our community, to perhaps boost enrolment
by turning some students on to the math programs at Guelph,
but most of all to bring together teachers and students on
the path to math learning."
So how many students in all has Weiner helped at the high
school and university levels? It's a big number, hard to calculate.
Leave it at this: more than one, less than a google.