Will Hightower: Adding Fun to the Core
Will Hightower has a big job. As Associate Director of Mathematical and Interdisciplinary Excellence, Will’s job is to make sure that a huge number of different teachers and administrators in the mathematics department, plus the faculty, are happy with the activities and courses offered to undergraduates. A recent grad of MIT Sloan, Will knows what he’s doing, but it’s clear that his first job is to be “funny.”
“That sounds a little phony, but it’s true,” he says. “What I’m trying to do is make sure that we’re all having fun!”
Plus, Will wants to make sure that as many of the departments and disciplines in the undergraduate math program as possible share the vision of a K-12-style math literacy of inquiry, problem solving, and creativity. He’s a big believer in the whole math literacy movement to make sense of complicated problems—but he knows the math and engineering world has had a hard time communicating this philosophy to non-traditional students.
“Our students need to experience how joyous mathematics can be,” he says. “We want them to engage with their diverse colleagues and educators; we want them to take something away from these explorations in joy. The failure to educate them for and into that joy, at all levels, means that they’re not going to be successful.”
Fluent in languages that include Thai, Brazilian Portuguese, and Indian, Will is also fluent in methodologies that encourage a greater variety of solutions to mathematics problems, ranging from the practical—Applied Algebra and R calculus—to the highly theoretical—Nanoscale Theory and Concepts of Optics. “I’m just a believer in the opportunities the math should offer,” he says. “Math is to be a great playground for experimentation. I’ve actually found that the problem solvers are a little more playful and thoughtful than those who simply make mistakes and say, ‘Hey, maybe there are ways to change that.’”
When he’s not helping schools bring more students into the tradition-rich core curriculum, Will works on a few different interdisciplinary projects.
One is to better tie the classroom with extracurricular clubs in math, and thus hopefully raise participation rates, and thus engagement rates, for students who would have otherwise graduated without a math degree. Will is currently leading a new “theory of math” course that includes a community of like-minded educators at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels, inviting both math teachers and kids to participate in discussions about math concepts. He’s also managing a new student learning center, including programing and a space for the students to work on abstract problem solving, to be launched as the math department’s mobile learning resource center in fall 2015.
“Pete, I think, is a good match for our department, because he’s no longer learning a new language,” says Terry Vogt, associate dean of the mathematics department. “He’s already fluent in three languages and also established a reputation for having respect for his teachers and helping them to shape their ideas. He’s not about to come in and tell the teachers what to do. But he’s also someone who understands the importance of commitment and dedication, of trying things out.”
Photo Credit: Trevor Nichols
Category: Student Life