Adams wins prestigious teaching award

Professor of Mathematics Colin Adams recently won one of three Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Distinguished Teaching Awards, highlighting him as a one of the best professors to have graced college campuses nationwide. Adams was chosen out of an elite group of professors from across the nation for having been “extraordinarily successful” and because his “teaching effectiveness has been shown to have had an influence beyond [his] own institution.”

Adams is the second Williams professor to receive the award since Professor Frank Morgan won it the first year it was granted in 1993. In winning it this year, Adams has made Williams one of two colleges in the United States to employ two recipients. The other institution to do so, Purdue University, supports a faculty roughly three times the size as that of Williams.

In maintaining the belief in him as “an innovative, demanding and very popular teacher who has played a critical role in the doubling the number of the enrollments in Williams mathematics classes and the tripling of the number of majors,” Adams has donned many hats. For several years, he has given more than one hundred talks nationwide to audiences of seventh graders, graduate students, professors, “and everywhere in-between,” he notes. In his talks, he impersonates Mel Slugbate, an aggressive salesman complete with faded green tie and plaid polyester suit known to Williams students as Adam’s brother-in-law, to entertainingly explain hyperbolic space, manifolds and knot theory through his sales pitches.

In addition to using impersonations to profess what he calls “unusual ways of teaching” Adams collaborated with Williams math professor Ed Burger in a play entitled “Casting About: About Casting,” where both pose as steel workers discussing topology. Their first performance last year at the 1996 annual MAA math meeting in Seattle was so successful that they were invited to repeat it the following year in Atlanta.

On top of his debut on stage, Adams has spent a considerable amount of time in the laboratory providing undergraduates opportunity for genuine mathematics research through SMALL–a summer research project on Williams campus funded by the National Science Foundation that he and his colleagues established.

Adams felt “incredibly honored” to have been one of this year’s three winners, coincidentally, the only one of which that was not named Rhonda. Contenders for the award are initially chosen by department chairs of colleagues of the college or university employing them. This advances them to the sectional standings from which few are selected to contend for national nomination. The Northeast, posing as the most competitive region due to its large college capacity, has produced more national winners than any other region.

In this case, Professor Ed Burger orchestrated Adams’s nomination as a Northeast contender by gathering student letters on Adams as well as letters from professors at other institutions on top of his own letter of recommendation. He made the effort because he truly feels that Adams is “the best.” “His innovation and the quality and quantity of his work are incomparable.” Burger felt that Adams serves as “a good role model for everybody,” students and teachers alike. “It’s all superlatives,” Burger noted of the words used when describing Adams, “but he’s a superlative guy .”

Professor Ollie Beaver served as the mathematics department chair when Adams was nominated. She supported the idea because she sees Adams as “an outstanding teacher. He’s very creative and energetic and he brings that creativity into the classroom.” The fact that “he loves mathematics and is world renown for the research he does” further solidified Beaver’s support for the nomination.

Professor Tom Garrity echoed his co-workers’ sentiments when he asserted that Adams’s designation “is great. No one deserves it more.”

Winning the award placed Adams among whom he feels as “all the people I have had this incredible amount of respect for in the math community. To be included among them is an honor.”

While serving as the chair of the math department, Adams worked on his thirtieth journal publication on hyperbolic three manifolds. Such manifolds are described as space that has hyperbolic geometry where, for instance, all the angles of a triangle add up to less than 180 degrees instead of obeying Euclidean geometry’s parallel postulate. It is the same subject for which Adams earned his Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1983. He is continuing his research in the application of such manifolds to a possible model of the universe.

Along with continuing his research, Adams will teach “An Introduction to Three Manifolds” as a senior seminar this semester. He also has the opportunity to tour the country to give talks as a result of recently gaining yet another, perhaps more prestigious title: the George Polya Lecturer of 1998. This MAA title enables Adams to give talks around the US for the next two years.

His influence is not limited to the classroom, laboratory, or lecture hall-turned-stage, however. As one of the world’s top knot researchers (appropriately punned), Adams is introducing the world to knots through his 1994 publication of The Knot Book: An Elementary Introduction to the Mathematical Theory of Knots which doesn’t leave out a “Knot Jokes and Pastimes” section in its explanation of knot theory and its subsequent importance to DNA research and synthetic chemistry. Adams noted that it was “nice to see that people were interested” once his book was translated to German and eventually Japanese.

His most recent publication due out in March, How to Ace Calculus: The Streetwise Guide, is co-authored by Joel Hass and Abigail Thompson. This book takes a humorous approach to teaching calculus.

Currently underway are a sequel to the calculus text, a book on three manifolds, and one on applied topology for readers who are not necessarily math majors.