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David Jao

In 2017, the Faculty of Mathematics awarded two faculty members with distinctions in teaching. One of those awards went to Professor David Jao and the other to Professor Pengfei Li.

David JaoA professor not known for wasting words, Jao explains that he was surprised at being granted this award. “It was pretty cool. It's unexpected. I’m in great company. Teaching isn’t something that comes naturally to me. It takes practice. If you practice anything and you try, you can become reasonably good at it.”

He admits his first teaching assignment didn’t result in the best reviews. “My exams were too hard. I wasn’t that great at it.” A decade or so later, Prof. Jao feels more confident teaching. He finds motivation in the productivity of teaching, explaining that it’s enjoyable to focus on something outside of research and create a positive impact with students. “People say teaching doesn’t matter – I don’t think that’s true at all. Good teaching makes a big difference to students!”

Professor Jao credits his life-changing experience in the PROMYS program at Boston University for helping him develop as a mathematician and as a teacher. “I had an amazing teacher, Glenn Stevens, who showed us how math actually works – that it's not all just calculations and formulas, but also about how to recognize patterns that lead to truth. I try and do the same for my students, especially when teaching MATH 145. I leave it up to the students to figure out what they can learn from examples. Math is not always about finding the right answers to problems that you are given; it's often about finding the right problems in the first place. That takes extraordinary creativity, which is often overlooked in mathematics until graduate school. But creativity can be taught, and it is worth teaching. Students see things in a completely different light once they experience the creative side of math.”

Teaching offers a break from research as well. Jao explains that while teaching is part of the mission of a university, it also helps complement research. “There are synergistic reasons to have research faculty teach – each supports the other. You revisit foundations and see new perspectives. You have to rethink the material and find new ideas. Having to explain concepts anew opens doors in your mind. And if nothing else teaching gives you something useful to do when your research isn't going well. I'd like to think that students benefit from my teaching, but even if they don’t, it helps us as researchers to teach.”

Jao’s advice for colleagues who are looking to improve their teaching is to continue practicing. “Start practicing early in your career. Take a public speaking class. Just like math can be taught, so can teaching.”

Jao and Li join 20 past recipients of the Faculty of Mathematics Award for Distinction in Teaching since its inception:

  • 2016 – Ruxandra Moraru and John Watrous 
  • 2015 – Steve Drekic and David Harmsworth 
  • 2014 - Penny Haxell and Javid Ali 
  • 2013 - Dan Wolczuk and Yu-Ru Liu 
  • 2012 – Stephen New and Levent Tuncel 
  • 2011 – J.P. Pretti and Jeffrey Shallit 
  • 2010 – Serge D’Alessio and Alfred Menezes 
  • 2009 – Ian Goulden and Troy Vasiga 
  • 2008 – Robin Cohen and David McKinnon 
  • 2007 – Beverly Marshman and Ian VanderBurgh 

Nominate your outstanding Faculty of Mathematics teacher for this award!