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Professor Lindsay Piechnik Helps Students Bring Math Concepts to Life

11.7.2012

High Point University Provost Dr. Dennis CarrollProfessors at High Point University are unique, bringing with them diverse experiences and teaching styles. This diversity enriches the liberal arts education and benefits our students greatly. A liberal arts education teaches student analytical and critical thinking and writing skills. However, classroom learning goes far beyond content from a textbook; professors teach life lessons and applicable solutions that will take students further in life. Lindsay Piechnik, assistant professor of mathematics, strives to do just that and she showed me how, even through math, you can learn about life.

Tell me about your childhood

My parents were both teachers and had a huge impact on me, both as a student and an educator. As a child I didn’t even realize that when they encouraged me to teach them what I was doing in school, they were actually helping me study. And I needed help.  I was pretty slow when I was young; in first grade I often had to be kept in at recess because I couldn’t get my work finished in class. I was particularly weak in spelling and still am, but I always felt okay about math.

So you naturally went into the math field?

I never saw myself becoming a mathematician, but perhaps one of my earliest memories should have been a hint. I remember sitting in the car on a road trip with my parents.They had given me a pad of paper and one marker. Believe me, coloring with one color gets old fast, so I started asking my mom for math problems. It wasn’t until years later that my mom told me she didn’t like math, and none of her friends did either. I’ve always understood that not everyone likes math, but it’s important to me that people don’t feel intimidated by it. Because I grew up surrounded by teachers, helping people understand things seems natural, and doing so in a discipline so many people, including my parents, struggle with feels good.  But it is certainly not something I always knew I was going to do. In fact, I became a math major because it gave me the flexibility to explore my other academic interests. Not only does math have applications in many fields, but at Duke the math major left plenty of space in my schedule for other stuff. I really enjoyed getting to take classes in departments all over campus.

To this day the course I am most proud of in my own academic career was the one which took me the farthest outside my comfort zone. I took an old-school animation class, where I made a one minute hand-drawn animated movie. Of course, being an athlete, it was an inspirational sports film. At the end of the movie the main character, an unathletic circle named Little Dude, accomplishes something no one thought he was capable of – just as I had by the end of the semester. To this day that DVD is a tangible reminder of what I accomplished in that class.

Everyone has experiences in college that aren’t what they came for, but stick with them for life. A liberal arts education, like the one I got at Duke and the one our students get here at High Point, isn’t about preparing students for one thing, but expanding and exposing their minds leaving them better prepared for whatever they do.

Even though your degrees are in math, your art class at Duke gave you an experience that math didn’t. You brought “The Future of the Liberal Arts” panel to HPU.  How do experiences like that one help shape your thoughts about a liberal arts education?

When I learned that our university’s theme for this year is the future of the liberal arts, I began thinking about how important it is for us here at HPU to look forward and consider how the role of liberal arts is changing in the national education system.

A liberal arts education has never claimed to prepare anyone for a particular career, but it offers a broad base for leaning, helps people learn how to integrate ideas. Challenging people to step outside their comfort zone and question both themselves and others, develops reasoning, creativity, and problem solving skills. A diversified background and skill set leaves students more prepared for whatever lies in their futures.

You can learn content from a book, but you won’t be exposed to ideas in the same way. A campus community allows you to interact with people and experience the material more completely. Live interactions with piers and professors, inside and outside of the classroom, offer different perspectives and can change the way we see the world.

Getting back to your part of the academic world, math is a male dominated field – what challenges have you faced as a female mathematician? 

The HPU math department is different than many other places. There are not only more women in the department, but more young women.This was certainly not the case at Duke or Columbia.

I never really thought about it much going through school, but being a woman in math probably gave me an advantage. For example, professors remembered my name because I was one of very few girls in class. It didn’t matter to me that I only actually had one female math professor, because numerous male professors gave me the guidance, time, and support so important for anyone to succeed. Looking back, I am extremely thankful for all they offered me. I think teaching is about connecting, and not just with the material. Connecting with people can be vital to breaking down barriers to understanding. That’s one reason HPU’s emphasis on “caring people” is really important to our students’ education.

How do you bring real-world concepts into your own classroom?

I know most students have to take a math course, and not everyone is excited about that. I realize most of my students will not be taking derivatives of polynomials very often after my class. However, they are going to be asked to learn challenging material and to solve complex problems. They will need to be able to take problems and break them down into smaller manageable parts, and then build them back up to accomplish a larger task. Those skills, which they practice with me, are way more important than memorization. I want to help my students develop reasoning and problem-solving skills, so they gain something from my class that will serve them well moving forward even if it’s not math.

What do you love most about teaching at HPU?

The best moments I’ve had as a teacher have all been about the students. It’s the people: students, faculty, staff, that make HPU. Yes, we have a pretty campus, but it’s the human component that truly makes our environment special. The best part of being at HPU is feeling like everyone is rooting for you and you are rooting for everyone. A major difference in getting an education from a book or computer rather than in person, is that you can ask questions and take ideas further, and those interactions make life richer. But really, the best moments are when I see a student proud of themselves and feel like I helped them reach that point. As a teacher, those moments make your day.

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