Akalu Tefera spends a sabbatical year at MIT
Professor Akalu Tefera spent his one-year sabbatical in 2006-2007 at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), teaching and immersing himself in the study of algebraic combinatorics. As a Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professor, he joined visiting researchers, post-doctoral fellows, and colleagues also taking their sabbaticals at MIT. Akalu was warmly welcomed by his MIT colleagues, and he appreciated the energetic but informal environment he experienced in the Mathematics Department there.
One of Akalu's goals was to learn more about algebraic combinatorics and he found plenty of opportunities to do so. He attended a combinatorics seminar twice a week with other faculty as well as audited graduate and undergraduate classes related to the topic. His goal was to increase his understanding of this branch of mathematics in order make connections with his own expertise in computer algebras and use techniques from the field of computer algebras to solve problems in algebraic combinatorics. He met this goal and also had the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues and test his newly gained knowledge as they worked together to solve problems. He also hopes to incorporate ideas he learned into accessible student-research problems for undergraduates to solve.
Akalu found attending classes with MIT students a fascinating experience. Distinctions between graduate and undergraduate students were often blurred, and students spent time in these classes solving problems and challenging the ideas and proofs presented by the professor. Graduate students were "hungry" for new problems to solve. And during class instruction, professors often adjusted the topic of the class based on the current knowledge base of the students, as students take great initiative to learn the material inside and outside class, spending many hours studying.
Akalu's other main goal for his sabbatical was to broaden his teaching experiences. He taught multiple sections of both Calculus and Differential Equations to a diverse group of students who were both respectful and motivated to learn. Students often asked questions in which the answers required knowledge of material beyond that covered in the course. His students were interested in hearing the explanations and often independently read up on the advanced material in order to make sense of their questions. At MIT, common exams are given for multiple-section courses and instructors engage in the group grading of the exams. Having a common assessment provided an opportunity to discuss pedagogical issues that Akalu appreciated. And though at times he and his colleagues would grade late into the evening, he found the group-grading process energizing.
Akalu enjoyed living in the Boston-Cambridge area and took advantage of the many cultural and intellectual events, museums, and a wide variety of restaurants. He also valued having the opportunity to meet so many different people from around the world during his time there. Overall, Akalu found his sabbatical experience refreshing and exciting.