Sybilla Beckmann Kazez is passionate about math and about teaching, which led to her being named a 2011 Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor, UGA’s highest recognition for superior instruction, and receiving a Regents’ Teaching Excellence Award.
Where did you earn degrees, and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
I have a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Pennsylvania and an Sc.B. in mathematics from Brown University. I’m a Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor of Mathematics in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.
When did you come to UGA, and what brought you here?
I came here in 1988 with my husband, Will Kazez, who is also a math professor here. We were delighted to join the math department because it was a good fit for both of our interests.
What are your favorite courses, and why?
My favorite courses to teach are the math courses for prospective elementary and middle grades teachers. This has become my passion! I have done research in arithmetic geometry, but my current research is on the mathematical education of teachers and mathematics content for children from prekindergarten through grade eight.
What interests you about your field?
I think math is the coolest, neatest thing around! The ideas fit together and build on each other so perfectly. This is true at every level of math – from the math that very young children learn all the way through math at the graduate level. I am constantly amazed at how deep and beautiful all of math is.
Take the familiar, but amazing, Pythagorean theorem. Why is it amazing? It describes a very simple relationship among the sides of a right triangle. Even though there are infinitely many right triangles, we can prove the relationship is true for every single one of them. Plus, there is a surprising way to prove that it’s true by decomposing a square into “puzzle pieces” in two different ways. And that is just one among hundreds of proofs that are known!
The Pythagorean theorem led to centuries of ground-breaking research on related equations. A recent high point was the celebrated proof of “Fermat’s Last Theorem.” But the Pythagorean theorem isn’t just fascinating; it is extremely practical because it’s the basis for distance formulas. The Pythagorean theorem is just one example, but math is full of similarly amazing ideas that lead to long arcs of investigation and often have surprising applications.
How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching?
For me, my teaching has inspired my research. When my children started going to school, I got interested in our math courses for prospective elementary school teachers. I now study how to prepare elementary and middle grades teachers to teach math.
What have you published in this field?
My book, Mathematics for Elementary Teachers, has become a standard textbook for aspiring teachers across the country. It’s now in its third edition.
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
I hope that the prospective teachers who study with me will be enthusiastic about teaching math to their students and will feel well prepared and confident to teach math in deeper and more engaging ways than has been common. I also hope my students will go on to share their knowledge with their colleagues and be a part of making math teaching better everywhere.
Describe your ideal student.
My ideal student is always thinking, questioning and looking for ways to go more deeply into the material. I get so excited when students ask me a question that I didn’t anticipate or when they think about different applications or extensions to the material. My ideal student collaborates with peers and shares and generates knowledge with classmates. In class, I always give students some time to discuss a problem or an idea with each other. It’s great to see students really grappling with the ideas together. My ideal student loves to encounter new ideas and new ways of thinking about familiar ideas. This is what education is all about! The great news is that we have many ideal students here at UGA. I feel truly lucky and honored to be working with them.
Favorite place to be on campus is…
…in class teaching!
Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…
…weave with my weaving group, play piano and travel with my family. Most of all I like to just be with my husband and our two great kids.
Proudest moment at UGA?
…winning a Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professorship and recently learning that I had received the FY2012 Regents’ Teaching Excellence Award given to one faculty member from the University System’s research universities.