Academics and Research / News

Professor opens door to mathematics

Professor Alvaro Arias accepts the Faculty Service Award during DU's Convocation in October.

University of Denver mathematics Professor Alvaro Arias admits the theoretical, complex world of pure mathematics is dark, foreboding and foreign to many.

That’s why he’s opening doors.

Arias was named this year’s Faculty Service Award winner at DU’s Convocation on Oct. 5 in recognition of his involvement in outreach projects aimed at opening up the world of mathematics to all students from pre-school through college.

While mathematics can seem as strange as a foreign language, the science is an exciting, beautiful world for those who study it, Arias says. For math students, the science makes sense and opens pathways to careers in research, finance and more, but some students are never properly exposed to math. Teachers in early education may struggle with the subject themselves, so it may not be presented properly. Even students with an aptitude may not consider further study if they aren’t presented with an opportunity, Arias says.

“Sometimes you have students who have this aptitude for mathematics, but it’s never explored,” he says. “High school counselors, many of them do not have a background in science, so when students come to them, especially girls, they say to them, ‘you could study literature, or business,’ but they don’t encourage them to study math and science.”

To break down those obstacles, Arias worked on DU’s “Making of a Scientist” camp, which brings together bright high school students from all socio-economic levels and from different parts of the country for a residential science camp. A Guatemala native, Arias found his Spanish language skills helped him connect with Spanish-speaking migrant families in California to encourage them to let their children attend a science camp far from home.

The program was a success, he says, but ultimately it was undone by financial struggles and the complexity of gathering students. While it lasted, he says, the program made a difference. He still follows students he mentored at the camp on Facebook and, says some of his former campers are now pursuing math and science degrees in college.

For his next project, Arias is looking to expose even younger students to math as part of a DU initiative called “Kids Play Math.” The program provides video games that teach math skills to pre-school students and teach pre-school teachers how to develop those math skills. And just as important, the games teach pre-school teachers how to teach math.

“We’re teaching the teachers with the games,” he says, excited about a potential partnership with the national Head Start program for preschoolers. “If this works out, we could be teaching 100,000 teachers in Head Start. That’s a lot. And that’s a lot of students who will be exposed to math at a very young age.”

The bright, colorful game interface — and the cheery narrative voice provided by his pre-teen daughter Andrea — belie the clever early math lessons hidden inside. The interactive games (in English and Spanish) don’t just allow children to mimic a winning formula, they test and retest a child’s understanding.

Even for college students, Arias says there has been a math gap. By the time some students get through their junior year in college and start to consider graduate school, those in fields outside the sciences find they don’t have enough math skills to advance in studies they think might be interesting. Business students interested in graduate programs in finance, for example, may find that the best programs demand much higher levels of mathematics than they have studied.

Once again, Arias’ natural drive to collaborate and reach across traditional lines comes into play. Working with the Daniels College of Business, he’s helping develop math courses that challenge college students to beef up their college transcripts with a bold regimen of math.

Other projects have included math classes through the Marsico Initiative and working to develop the Penrose Math Center to provide mathematics help outside of class.

Provost Gregg Kvistad says the service award is often bestowed on those who dedicate hours to the University, the community or the profession, but in Arias’ case, the “or” should be changed to “and” because his service crosses so many lines.

“When asked to describe his University service, Alvaro doesn’t think of committees but rather what he has done to improve the student academic experience at DU,” Kvistad said at Convocation.

Arias came to DU in 2001 and chaired the math department for three years leading up to the 2011–12 academic year. He says he’s honored to be recognized by his peers for his service, something he never expected.

“There are some departments whose mission is to do public service. Geography has a big program, there’s social work, and business, which has big elements … what we do is much more theoretical. Even people in science don’t understand what we do if it’s not in your discipline. We’re very narrow and very deep,” he says. “So when a colleague nominated me for this award, he showed me the letter he wrote, and I said ‘Wow, that’s a lot.’ I hadn’t realized it. Coming from the math department, this was a lot. It’s something I love doing.”

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