Tangible math

Engineering prof teaches practicality behind the numbers

When Sourav Banerjee talks about teaching numerical and mathematical methods to engineering students, his enthusiasm is nearly palpable.

But numbers weren’t always his thing. In fact, the Kolkata, India, native was barely passing math in middle school. “It was all Greek to me,” he says, but a conversation with a math tutor turned things around.

“He told me, ‘You have to say to yourself many times that you love math. Now, why you love it you have to find for yourself,’ ” Banerjee says.

Then the tutor told Banerjee how algorithms were first developed for counting raisins and nuts in ancient cultures. The actual sums were too large to record in merchants’ log books, the tutor told him, so a way to express numbers in units of 10 was developed.

That was Banerjee’s lightbulb moment — understanding the practicality behind all of those equations, symbols and numbers. It’s a lesson he still takes to heart.

“Students get bogged down in how an equation works and forget about why it was developed in the first place. My job is to make the math more tangible, more touchable for my students,” he says. “I give them everyday examples about engineering principles at work and the math behind them.”

Banerjee, named one of four recipients of the 2017 Michael J. Mungo Undergraduate Teaching Award, wants students to learn multiple methods for solving engineering problems instead of relying on one fixed approach. “To paint a beautiful picture,” he says, “you have to mix the colors, not just use the five or six paint-by-number colors.”

We’re learning how to teach those students who are not always excited about learning. 

Sourav Banerjee

One of the challenges of teaching is igniting a passion for the material, Banerjee says. “I’ve found that almost every student can connect to movies, and I’m a movie buff so I give them examples of engineering applications from different movies,” he says. “Immediately after a football game, I might refer to the game and show them how math principles apply to a particular play.”

Those techniques for connecting with students are part of what Banerjee has learned about teaching students. “We have ROTC students, first-generation college students, those who are musically inclined but whose parents want them to major in engineering,” he says. “I show them how engineering and equations apply to each of their interests. You have to connect with each one.

“We’re in a particular time when every student has a smart phone and can get information whenever they want it. We’re learning how to teach those students who are not always excited about learning. I tell them, ‘I can give you the actual picture, the canvas, if you come to class. You can get the dots by looking things up on the internet, but you won’t get the canvas.' ”

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