Q&A: Professor Petra Bonfert-Taylor
Professor and instructional designer Petra Bonfert-Taylor received her PhD from the Technical University of Berlin and was a professor of mathematics at Wesleyan University before joining Thayer in 2015. Her research is in complex analysis, geometric function theory, hyperbolic geometry, and the mathematics of medical imaging, and she is avid about improving pedagogy.
Why do you like to experiment with different approaches to teaching?
I have a strong interest in creating equal opportunities for all of my students in my classes. I’d like to challenge each one of them while helping them develop a passion for what they are learning. There is always room for improvement in teaching, and I like to implement new ideas in order to improve my students’ learning experiences. I am also deeply curious, on an intellectual level, about how humans learn.
What teaching/learning techniques do you think are most effective?
There is no one-fits-all solution to what works best in the classroom. We all care deeply about our students’ learning, and that’s what is at the core of effective teaching. Strategies that have worked well for me include those that keep students actively engaged with the course material, with each other, and with me, the instructor, during their learning process. For example, rather than lecturing for extended periods, I like to use some of my in-class time to have students work through problems, discuss solutions in groups, and present their work to the class.
Do your research interests have a bearing on how you teach?
My research is in mathematics—geometric analysis, to be precise—and I have spent significant amounts of time thinking about how to most effectively present intricate mathematical theories to those less involved in mathematics. Trying to put yourself into the shoes of people who are just beginning to explore a topic about which you have thought for a decade or more is quite difficult but most helpful in empathizing with new learners. In doing research, one tackles problems to which not only the answers are unknown, but where it is not even a priori clear that the question is fully correct. As a researcher I am completely empathetic with my students’ struggles to find their own paths through difficult material.
What prompted you to write an op-ed about messages adults give kids about math?
Math anxiety has such a profound negative effect on so many people, including many of our students. For the longest time I have been asking myself where this anxiety comes from and what I could do to help affected students. As I watched my own children and their peers advance through the school system, I developed more and more insight into what might be happening. Combined with my frustration about the al-too-common response I receive when people find out that I am a mathematician (“I was always so bad at math!”), and inspired by the Dartmouth Public Voices Fellowship, which I am fortunate to be a part of, I decided to write the op-ed in order to raise awareness of the issues and their implications.