“Excuse me for one second,” Ian VanderBurgh says as he leaves his desk to answer his office door.
“Purolator delivered this package to us and – don’t touch it! – it’s soaking wet,” explains his colleague at the Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing (CEMC). “What should we do?”
Wet postage is among the many administrative and operational issues that Ian deals with on a daily basis as the director of the CEMC. The mission of the CEMC is to promote mathematics and computer science to younger students to instill in them a passion for math early on. “Lots of students who are in elementary school often say their favourite subject is math, but when you get to grade 11 or 12, it’s probably less so,” remarks Ian. “I think that the CEMC does a good job of providing resources and activities for students and teachers that help either increase or encourage that love of math and computer science.”
Officially founded in 1995, the CEMC’s activities range from running mathematics contests and workshops for students, as well as conferences and web resources for teachers. Recently, it has created the Master of Mathematics for Teachers program, which helps its candidates gain a deeper foundation in mathematics while reinforcing pedagogical principles.
The CEMC is the largest and most prominent outreach organization for math and computing in Canada. In addition to nurturing young math enthusiasts to benefit society at large, it does wonders for the university itself. “The CEMC is the first way that a huge fraction of our undergraduate students hear about the University of Waterloo. They know about us through writing math contests, like the Gauss contest in Grade 7, or working on mathFROG when they were in Grade 5,” Ian says.
Ian is an outstanding educator in his own right, and has been honoured with the 2003 Distinguished Teaching by a Registered Student Award during his graduate studies at UWaterloo and the university-wide Distinguished Teacher Award in 2008. According to one of Ian’s former "Algebra for Honours Mathematics" (Mathematics (MATH) 135) students posting on the popular website Rate My Professors, the VanderBurgh effect is “students wanting to wake up and get to class early for an 8:30 am section.”
Ian usually presents his lectures using nothing more than a chalk and the blackboard. However, it would be a mistake to think that this traditional approach takes away from his flair. He is a highly animated lecturer, moving around the classroom from time to time. He constantly refers to real-life examples of where the material may be relevant and makes enough hilarious wisecracks to earn him celebrity status in the student-run publication, MathNews.
In a class of 200 students – a large percentage of which are spectators who aren’t even registered in the section – Ian would typically learn two-thirds of their names. He says, “It makes the students feel a lot more connected to me and it helps me feel a lot more connected to them.” Instead of holding office hours, Ian has an open-door policy where students can come find him whenever they wish.
Ian is a pure mathematician by training, but isn’t heavily involved in research because of all his duties as full-time lecturer and Director of the CEMC. A whole new set of responsibilities was bestowed upon him as of January 2011, when he became the father of Joshua VanderBurgh. Judging from his dedication and patience towards his students and all the pictures of his baby that he adoringly posts all over his office, Ian is as excellent a dad as he is a teacher.