GVSU mathematics professor, recipient of national teaching award, strives to convey both joy and utility of discipline he considers beautiful

The reverence David Austin has for the discipline of mathematics has both poetic and practical elements.

Austin, professor of mathematics, talks fondly of what he calls the beauty of mathematics, such as finding patterns in something abstract or underlying ideas in a complex problem.

"It sounds like talking about poetry or art, but there's something very aesthetically pleasing about learning mathematics," Austin said.

On the practical side, he also emphasizes the role that applied mathematics plays in our lives even if we don't realize it, along with the wide range of career options for those with a degree in mathematics. He has made it a mission for students and the community at large to understand those possibilities.

David Austin
David Austin, professor of mathematics, received a national teaching award.
Image Credit: University Communications

His dedication to these ideals and more is reflected in being named a recipient of the Mathematical Association of America's 2021 Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award. According to the organization, the award honors successful higher education teachers who have shown influence beyond their institutions. 

The nomination for Austin included remarks from colleagues and those who knew him as students, praising Austin for his work as a mathematician, educator, mentor, visionary and advocate.

"His wide-ranging instructional work is outstanding in all respects and continues to have a deep impact on his GVSU students, his colleagues at GVSU and around the nation, and on people interested in mathematics and its applications far beyond Grand Valley," said Matt Boelkins, professor of mathematics.

A hallmark of Austin's career has been ensuring access and opportunity for studying mathematics.

Recognizing the financial barriers of textbooks for some students, Austin said he has worked on initiatives to connect mathematics teachers with high-quality open access textbooks to ease that burden.

"For some students who take a course, they might have to make a choice between paying for a textbook or rent," Austin said. "If you don’t have the textbook you’re already behind in the course."

Photo of forms in a pocket on a wall underneath the words, "math major"
Austin said those with a mathematics degree have multiple career options from employers who value the skills, such as problem solving, that graduates have developed.
Kendra Stanley-Mills
A note outside the Math Center says "I love the Math Center"
Austin, who said there is a joyful aspect to mathematics that he enjoys, also wants to impart the benefits of mathematics to students and the community.
Kendra Stanley-Mills

Austin, who is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, said he is also part of an effort to ensure quality mathematics education for indigenous grade school students out West by supporting the teachers of that discipline. The work through the Alliance of Indigenous Math Circles provides workshops and summer camps for teachers while building a sense of community.

Community-based learning is at the heart of an applied mathematics capstone class, where Austin pairs a small group of students with business, nonprofit and government entities to help work through a project needing mathematical expertise. He said the students get a richer understanding of the complex human issues behind the data during such work as with the City of Grand Rapids on housing assistance.

He said he hopes his work helps counter the negative perceptions the general public can have about mathematics, noting, "People almost take pride in saying, 'I was never good at math.'"

It is incumbent on mathematics educators to create a student-centered environment to be more welcoming, he said, because he rejects the notion that people just can't do math.

"Not everyone will become a professional mathematician, but everyone can do mathematics and everyone can enjoy mathematics," he said.