Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Logic in harmony with passion

Concordia professor Fred Szabo takes the Socratic Q&A approach to math instruction

Anyone who listens to Fred Szabo, a full professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, talk about teaching, quickly realizes that he embodies the adage: do something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.

For Szabo, teaching is not a job, but a vocation. His dedication has resulted in him receiving a number of teaching awards, including a recent President's Award for Innovative Excellence in Teaching.

Fred Szabo | Photo by Concordia University
Fred Szabo | Photo by Concordia University
For Szabo, the challenge has been to create “teaching vehicles that reach individuals in a group setting.” He has been working at Concordia for 46 years but, far from feeling burned out or jaded, he says his mind is clearer than it has ever been.

“I feel more excited and more committed,” he says. “My long-term plans are evolving faster than I can cope with, and I’m really having the time of my life.”

Szabo is particularly inspired by newer technologies that take math instruction out of the classroom and into the real world. Szabo has so far created three online mathematics courses that are available through eConcordia: linear algebra, business math, and business calculus.

His goal for the next five to 10 years is to significantly contribute to global education, especially to making the instruction of mathematics more available in Latin America. A Mexican university will be the first to offer one of his online courses on a trial basis. He hopes to expand access to the online offerings so that they can reach people anywhere, anytime. It would make the online courses more like the one-on-one tutorials he experienced as an Oxonian undergrad.

Szabo is similarly enthusiastic about convincing the university to obtain a site license for the Mathematica software and install on 100 laptops available at the university’s library. The easy-to-learn software has a myriad of applications for design, education, biotechnology, engineering, science and technology uses, and students no longer have to be tethered to a math lab.

These days Szabo teaches linear algebra, an introduction to math course offered through online technology, and a math course for non-math students that he proudly relates is “fully subscribed every year.”

He strives to make learning mathematics “accessible, relevant, and fun,” and says some of his students are stunned when he canvasses them to discover what it is they’d like to learn. “To get them to be self-motivated, though, you have to teach them what interests them,” he says.

Szabo believes in the Socratic method of asking and answering good questions to stimulate critical thinking. Students work on projects they find intriguing. Recent projects included the calculations involved in Ponzi schemes, finding out how a radio works, the mathematics of music, and investigating search engines.

Szabo obtained his undergraduate degree at Oxford University in a course of study called the Modern Greats — “replacing the Classic Greats of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew,” he says. Much of the teaching was done one on one, with tutors. Szabo discovered his calling after one of his tutors involved him in writing about the papers of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a philosopher who dealt with the foundations of mathematics and logic.

Szabo came to Montreal to pursue logic and its applications at the graduate level, obtaining his PhD at McGill University. He’s been teaching at Concordia for 46 years.

“I love and respect my students,” he says. “Most students are smarter than they have to be to succeed at university.”

Szabo has always been a passionate tennis player and might take up his beloved violin again, after a holiday in Mittenwald, Germany – a place renowned for its violin makers – but he has no plans to retire.

“This is a great time to be alive and teaching,” he says. “You’re still at the point where you can be a pioneer, so it’s really exciting.”

Related links:
Szabo discusses Mathematica’s application in many courses of study at Concordia
Ludwig Wittgenstein

Originally published Dec. 14th at Concordia NOW.

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