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Atlanta, GA | Posted:
March 5, 2009 *

Some people view mathematics as a lonely discipline, but Associate Professor Matthew Baker’s vision of mathematics is highly people-oriented. What he finds most exciting about mathematics is sharing it with others—and share it he does in a wide range of courses for undergraduates and graduate students alike.

Since arriving at Georgia Tech in Fall 2004, Dr. Baker has taught Math 1512: Honors CalculusII at the freshman level, Math 3012: Applied Combinatorics at the sophomore level, and Math 4150: Number Theory for juniors and seniors. He’s also taught the graduate algebra sequence (Math 6121/2: Algebra I/II), which serves as a gateway for PhD level study in mathematics, and Math 8803: Algebraic Number Theory, a graduate-level topics course.

What is it about Matt Baker’s teaching that captivates his students and impresses his colleagues? What does this winner of the 2007 CETL/BP Junior Faculty Teaching Excellence Award do that students find so engaging? Here are some elements of Baker’s approach that are producing great results as he connects with Georgia Tech students.

Matt wants students to share his enthusiasm for mathematics—and he works to intrigue them with its possibilities. For example, when he teaches his undergraduate course on Number Theory, he introduces modular arithmetic (also known as “clock arithmetic”) through the “circle of fifths” in music theory. He then impresses the students with some lightning-fast mental calendar calculations (e.g. What day of the week was June 8, 1723?), and wraps up the lesson by teaching the students how to do the calculations themselves.

As a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians and the Atlanta Society of Magicians, Baker knows how to communicate ideas in ways that challenge student thinking. He uses his talents as a magician to illustrate mathematical concepts and to help his students explore the mathematical principles behind what he’s doing. He performs card tricks based on modular arithmetic and rope tricks based on principles from topology; he also performs a mind-reading trick using colored gloves to illustrate a famous theorem of Leonhard Euler from graph theory. And of course, bringing magic into the classroom also keeps students alert.

Matt believes that connecting with students on an emotional and personal level is important too. “In the modern era of online universities and virtual diplomas,” states Baker, “it is important for students to know that a human professor can provide things that a digital one cannot, such as emotional understanding. A small bit of extra encouragement or a solid piece of advice from a trusted mentor can make an enormous difference in a student’s performance, sense of confidence, and career decisions.”

To this end, he has served as a teacher, mentor and coordinator for the School of Mathematics’ Research Experience for Undergraduates program, an NSF initiative. He is a talented research mathematician who has made important contributions to the field of number theory and publishes in some of the most prestigious journals—and he involves his students in the process.

Matt Baker’s students applaud his genuine enthusiasm for both teaching and research, his “talent for simplifying advanced topics,” his “patience and ability to confront a point of confusion by explaining from multiple angles,” his ability to make learning fun, and his sincerity as a teacher and a mentor. In the world of mathematics where students often find the process of learning complex and intimidating, Matthew Baker is truly working magic. He inspires, teaches and connects with students as few are able to do in one of higher education’s most challenging fields—and in doing so, he is definitely making a difference for students at Georgia Tech.