Teaching: A Job to Many, a Dream to One
by Whitney Madewell
In many ways, life is like a mathematical equation. For Jerry Dwyer, associate professor of mathematics at Texas Tech, it consists of problem solving, balancing time between responsibilities and making the small things count.
His interest for logic, problem solving and numbers took root when he was a young lad growing up on a small farm in Ireland. From unraveling puzzles to persistently counting cobblestones and the neighbor’s cows, his fascination with using mathematics to solve common, everyday problems came naturally.
“Figuring things out always appealed to me,” Dwyer said. “I think as time went on, I began to see a tremendous elegance in mathematics. There is a beauty in figuring things out. I think I also liked explaining those mathematical understandings to other people. There was some kind of satisfaction in having other people get it as well, so that’s where I started.”
Dwyer’s love for mathematics, teaching and helping others has impacted many lives throughout the world and made him into the individual he is today. Although he is very active in his work as a teacher, he is quick to tell you that this is just one aspect of who he is as a person. Outside of teaching, he is an avid long-distance runner who enjoys participating in marathons and taking time to mentor students and friends to achieve their fitness goals. He also enjoys getting involved in his church and community volunteer projects.
“If someone were to ask me how to define me, the first thing I would say is that I am a runner,” Dwyer said. “And then I suppose somewhere in there, I am a mathematician, and then I am an Irish Catholic.”
The Spark of Passion
While academia is an imperative part of his life today, he admits this was not always the case. When he was a young boy working on his family’s farm, the assumption was that he would follow in the footsteps of his parents and drop out of school at the age of 12 to help support his family. However, a teacher saw an intelligent spark in Dwyer and insisted that his parents allow him to continue on his academic journey.
Video produced by Scott Irlbeck, Office of Communications & Marketing.
“The Irish education system was extremely good,” Dwyer said. “An education was seen as a way of getting somewhere, so I just stayed in school. And because I always knew that I liked math, and I was good at math, I didn’t want to do much else.”
While in grade school, he admits to being somewhat lazy. He didn't like repetitive labor like yard work and he wondered how he could create machines to do this work for him.
After high school he attended the National University of Ireland in Cork to pursue a bachelor’s degree in mathematical science. It only took him a little while to decide he wanted to become a university professor and teach students who had a true interest in mathematics, rather than teach high school students who had little curiosity for the subject. For that reason, he pursued a master’s degree in computer science and a doctorate in applied mathematics.
Dwyer always dreamed of following the path of many Irish people before him who moved to the United States. After receiving his qualifications to become a professor, he packed up his things and made his own journey to America.
“I wanted to get my Ph.D. before, so I wouldn’t be stuck in school when I came to America”, Dwyer said. “So, I said I would finish school first, so I could enjoy America. It was a sense of adventure more than anything else. Let’s come and see what will happen.”
Boston soon became Dwyer’s new home away from home, where he began research on applied mathematics and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Boston was quite a transition for him, but the city’s Irish heritage was comforting. After a year, he decided to move out west to Colorado to become a mathematics instructor. He enjoyed the mountains, beautiful scenery and high elevation for running. As the years went by, his teaching led him to the University of Tennessee and later to Texas Tech University in 2003.
Dwyer's research involves mathematics education and how teachers’ knowledge and approach to mathematics can influence student learning.
Influencing the Next Generation
For the past 10 years, one of Dwyer’s main focus areas has been the mathematical education of teachers. He says the proper training of teachers can result in a better learning environment for students.
“If you can really train teachers, then you can influence a whole generation of students,” Dwyer said. “I can go into a high school today and teach 10 kids, and maybe they will learn something. But if I teach 25 teachers, then I’m impacting 400 kids over the next few years. So, the mathematical education of teachers has become a big interest of mine.”
In addition to teaching, Dwyer allocates much of his time to academic research, including issues of mathematics education and trying to understand how teachers’ knowledge and approach to mathematics can influence student learning. Another research interest is using computer simulations and exploring the mathematics behind those simulations to solve problems in engineering.
“Trying to understand these operations and how these functions work in their own right became increasingly interesting to me, as well as how we can use real life applications to attract the next generation into mathematics and science,” Dwyer said.
Making Change Around the World
Dwyer’s enthusiasm for teaching has become an impetus for the service learning projects he does outside of the classroom. In the past, he has conducted a variety of community projects in Lubbock such as the placement of Texas Tech student tutors in local school programs. His love for sports culture also has inspired him to work with students to improve their physical and mental fitness.
Even his love of academia and service learning has extended beyond the Lubbock community. One example is his work in Africa, where he helps broaden teachers’ mathematical knowledge and tutors students on a one on one basis. Dwyer says his experiences in Africa are perhaps the most rewarding, because the country is extremely limited in resources and qualified teachers.
“If you teach students and suddenly they understand math or suddenly they increase their confidence, you have actually done something very good,” he said. “It’s the same way working in Africa. If you can do something that provides more resources for kids in Africa, then you’re also doing something good. I think that’s part of my motivation. I made connections with schools in Africa and end up doing things there like I do here at Texas Tech.”
Dwyer believes his service learning projects are a bit like teaching math in the sense that one’s experiences can be used to help another person. He says whether it’s helping a teacher in Africa improve his teaching skills, explaining a difficult math problem to a student at Texas Tech, or increasing someone’s physical fitness, you are providing service.
Click images to enlarge. Africa photos courtesy Jerry Dwyer.
Loving Every Moment of It
Dwyer’s devotion to teaching, service and research is an exceptional model of integrating the multiple responsibilities of a scholarly educator. His continuous love for his work is the grounds for the outstanding effort and dedication he has given to mentoring students and faculty around the world.
“I think first of all you have to love what you are doing,” Dwyer said. “You have to do something because you like it. You can’t just be doing it to go through the hoops. You really have to say, ‘I love doing this; I will do it so well I can’t be ignored.’ So if you love your teaching and don’t see it as a burden, you will give time to it. Now, where is the time to do all those things? That is a question of planning and integrating. I think you have to be very careful to manage your time.”
While his academic accomplishments are immense, Dwyer continues to exceed expectations as a committed teacher, faculty mentor and global citizen. His lifelong passion for mathematics and educational development is a never-ending joy that brings him new and exciting challenges with each day.
“I’m still doing math and teaching, and as long as I can do that, I’m still happy,” Dwyer said. “So, in many ways, I kind of feel like I drifted into what I love doing. I am a bit wary of people who tell you at the age of 12 that they are going to get a Ph.D. in something. How do you know? As a child, I had a vague idea that I liked doing math and I liked teaching, but I ended up with the best job in the world.”
Whitney Madewell is a student assistant for Academic & Research Communications in the Office of the Vice President for Research. Madewell is an undergraduate student in the College of Mass Communications. Photos courtesy Neal Hinkle.