Professional mathematicians hear it all the time: "Math is so hard for me. I've never been good at math." But Professor Jim Morrow's students talk about math much differently. His students speak of math in reverent terms.
"This class was certainly my bridge from viewing math simply as a tool to seeing it as beautiful in its own right," says one student, referring to a course he took from Morrow. "While the material is intrinsically beautiful," writes another, "I doubt I would have become so enthusiastic about it had I not had a teacher whose love for the subject was clear."
How students become so enamored with mathematics is a mystery to Morrow. "I'm constantly surprised at the way things work out," he says. "I just do my best to tell them what I think is interesting. Maybe my enthusiasm is catchy."
Morrow's enthusiasm influences students beyond the realm of his UW classes in a host of special programs he directs or co-directs: Mathday, which draws 1,200 high school students every year; a National Science Foundation grant program called Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU), in which students do mathematical research; the new Summer Institute for Mathematics for a select group of high school students; and teams of UW students that he coaches in competing-and winning-in an international math contest. "I have been in contact with such an unusually good group of students over the years," he says. "I almost feel like I follow their lead sometimes. It's easy to catch them afire."
"He devotes an extraordinary amount of time and energy to his students and to improving undergraduate education," reports a group of students in a letter supporting Morrow's nomination for a Distinguished Teaching Award. "He is responsible for leading countless students to success and enjoyment in mathematics."
A born natural with math, Morrow remembers the joy of solving a difficult math puzzle involving monkeys and coconuts as a sixth grader, a puzzle his father couldn't solve. Teaching is inherent to his makeup, as well. Some of his peers remark that math and teaching are seamlessly integrated in Morrow. "When I understand something, I love to explain it to other people, to the point where some people run away when they see me coming," Morrow jokes. "My kids laugh at me all the time when they ask me a simple question and I go on for 20 or 30 minutes."
Math is not just for whiz-kids, he maintains. What makes people good at math is "not necessarily some unusual talent, like fantastic memory or ability to calculate in your head," Morrow says. "There's definitely a certain talent that's needed, but more than that, there's got to be a personality component to it, which I think of as patience and persistence. Good math students all have it. They're willing to keep at something that might be discouraging in the beginning, until they figure it out."
Morrow describes his students as "fearless" and says, "The biggest reason for the success of my teaching is that the students I've been involved with have been so good that I don't really have much to do. They're so impressive, it's hard to brag about them enough. Any good things that get said about me, you have to say about the students."