In seventh grade, a teacher told Evelyn Silvia she was the best math student he ever had.
"My recollection is that I was sort of average in math in grades K-6. But from that point on, that teacher gave me a goal," said Silvia, now a professor of mathematics at UC Davis. "Before that, I thought of myself as a B student; by the end of seventh grade, I felt that math was something I could really do," she said.
This week, her own teaching work was honored with the prestigious Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award for Distinguished College or University Teaching of Mathematics. The award was presented Thursday during the Joint Mathematics Meetings in New Orleans.
The Mathematical Association of America presents the Haimo award to up to three recipients each year. Recognized as the highest award in university-level mathematics teaching, the award honors extraordinarily successful educators whose teaching effectiveness has had influence beyond their own institutions.
The prize is significant for Silvia's students because it shows that they are being taught by the nation's top math teacher, said mathematics department chair Motohico Mulase.
In the letter nominating her for the award, Mulase praised Silvia for her "enjoyment of mathematics, excitement about teaching, commitment to learning and genuine concern for all her students."
The award shows the strength of the mathematics department in both research and teaching, said Mulase, noting that Silvia also has a strong research record.
Silvia has been deeply involved in mathematics education in California since joining UC Davis in 1973. Her work has emphasized curriculum development and teacher training at all levels, and she has worked on numerous collaborative projects with school and college teachers. She was a principal investigator with the Northern California Math Project, a K-12 subject matter project directed through the Division of Education's Cooperative Research and Extension Services for Schools. Through the project, Silvia worked with public school teachers on both course content and professional development.
Silvia has taught school math from grades 4 to 12. She believes that public school teaching is critically important, because the way students think about math is molded long before she sees them at the university level.
Her earlier primary and secondary teaching experience helped with her university teaching, she said. The same errors would show up in both settings, due to students' fundamental misconceptions about math. Long before they arrive at a university, students need to learn the language of math, Silvia believes.
"In math, equations are sentences which you need to translate. If you start to move symbols around without understanding the sentence, you can end up with nonsense," she said. "Many young people don't realize this and treat equations as if they were magic."
During her 28 years at UC Davis, Silvia has noticed both changes and constants in her classes. Davis students continue to be very hardworking and strive to achieve their goals, she says. However, she has noticed a decline in the ability to access knowledge that they have already acquired.
"I know they've learned it in school, but they don't recall it--they don't connect things up," she said. This might be because of lack of time, more distractions or simply because they have not seen their parents work in this way. At school, the students tend to think about math from 9 to 10 a.m. and then forget about it for the rest of the day, instead of continuing to think and make connections, she said.
But the linking process can be learned. "They can always go back again and go way beyond where they thought they could go, once they begin to link things up," she said. "Then they've learned something that will last forever."
Silvia believes that it is the way of thinking that needs to be taught, rather than the mechanics of solving equations. She is currently involved in initiatives to help schools meet the new California state requirements in algebra teaching.
"It's unfortunate they chose the term 'algebra,'"she said. "If we focus on the wrong things, it won't work," she added, emphasizing that students need to understand the language of math and to see math in all aspects of their lives, in interest payments, grocery bills and news reports. "That would not necessarily translate into a course called 'Algebra.'"
Silvia has served on numerous committees since joining UC Davis in 1973. She chaired the senate Committee on Admissions and Enrollment in 1998, developing proposals to find students with the most potential for UC Davis in the wake of Proposition 209 and the ending of affirmative action in the UC system. She directed the Teaching Resources Center from 1989 to 1992.
As a long-serving faculty member, she has also been concerned with the problems of new faculty at the university. In 1991 she produced a pamphlet, "Collegial Advice for Assistant Professors," that was distributed by Academic Affairs. The pamphlet, including the invaluable advice, "Never say 'yes' right away," is still available from her Web site.
Like her seventh-grade teacher, Silvia strives to inspire her students and thinks that students need to be challenged to achieve their best.
"The challenge of teaching is finding ways to get students to have that vision, to dig deeper so that they can reach higher," said Silvia, summing up her teaching philosophy. "If we don't believe that students are capable of more than they think they can do, we will never help them achieve all they can."