Professor of Mathematics
Words: Bethany Peterson Lockett ’20
Photos: Tony Hughes
There is a clear distinction we make among ourselves from a young age when we start school—between those students who are “math people” and those who are not.
Dr. Mary Vanderschoot sees the consequences of this early math anxiety. “People make decisions about a student’s potential in math and label students pretty early in elementary school and high school, so a lot of people are intimidated by math,” Vanderschoot explained. “People feel so free to just say ‘I’m bad at math’ or ‘math is hard,’ and they feel like maybe they don’t even belong in a college math class.”
Vanderschoot now has a personal goal: to design her classes in a way that makes people feel safe and gain confidence doing math.
For this reason, Vanderschoot, who has taught at Wheaton for 17 years and served as department chair for 10, hardly lectures during her classes—which range from teaching elementary education majors to showing fractions with pattern blocks to helping students use models in differential equation courses. Instead, she creates learning opportunities through activities in small groups.
“One of my favorite aspects about teaching is when my students are able to experience math as an exploratory adventure and experience the joy and satisfaction of working on mathematics with others,” Vanderschoot shared.
Vanderschoot loves to watch her students grow in confidence to tackle problems and ask questions. But her proudest moments are when they see how math can enrich their lives and faith.
“As Christians, math helps us to see God’s creation in a different light. It expands our curiosity and helps us to see patterns,” she said.
Even as Vanderschoot continues her own complicated research in dynamical systems for an upcoming book, she hopes she can help people feel that math isn’t exclusive.
“I’m just constantly looking for ways to empower people in math and help them realize that math is for everyone.”