THE RIGHT EQUATION

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.