Louise Hay Award

1999 Winner: Martha K. Smith


In recognition of her very significant contributions to mathematics education and her outstanding achievements as a teacher and scholar, the AWM is pleased to present the Ninth Annual Louise Hay Award to Martha K. Smith, University of Texas at Austin.

For the last ten years, she has led and guided mathematics education in the mathematics department at the University of Texas at Austin. Ten years ago, when the Texas legislature abolished mathematics education degrees, the responsibility for preparing Texas mathematics teachers was given to mathematics departments across the state — at Austin, Martha Smith assumed this responsibility. Throughout her career, she has zealously pursued excellence in teaching, experimenting with different teaching methods and incorporating technology, group work, and significant writing projects into undergraduate teaching long before these became fashionable. In honor of her accomplishments as a teacher, she has been the recipient of several awards. Martha Smith firmly believes that even the weakest student can learn, and she has thought deeply about the root problems underlying students’ problems in learning math. Building on her philosophy and insights, she has developed teacher preparation courses on geometry, problem-solving, and statistical thinking and taught regularly. Martha Smith’s dedication and excellence as a teacher may also he seen in the active role she has played in encouraging the participation of woman in mathematics. She regularly serves as a mentor for women graduate students at Austin, advising them and participating in various formal and informal programs for students. She also organized a major University program for women, a Symposium on Encouraging and Supporting Woman in Mathematics and Science.

Professor Smith hills a solid record as a mathematical scholar. “In her dissertation on group algebras,” writes one colleague, “she broke new ground in the study of prime group algebras, and demonstrated a beautiful interplay between algebraic and analytic techniques. (Her publications) have established Martha’s reputation as an innovative and influential non-commutative algebraist.” She has been recognized for her scholarly contributions through invitations to give presentations at international symposia and seminars. She has also served on various selection and advisory committees.

For exemplary educational and scholarly contributions and sustained efforts over 20 years on behalf of students, AWM is honored to present this award to Martha Smith.

Response from Martha K. Smith:

I am honored and very surprised to receive the Louise Hay Award. Certainly part of. the honor is that the award is in memory of Louise, who impressed me as a very intelligent, capable, kind, and thoughtful human being when we served together on NSF graduate fellowship selection committees many years ago. on the other hand, I was not surprised to learn that it was my department chair, Efraim Armendariz, who nominated me for the award. If anyone asked me for advice on being a good department chair, I would say to follow his model: be alert to what your faculty members are interested in doing professionally, facilitate their doing it, then nominate them for awards when they’ve done it.

Teaching mathematics effectively is a difficult task which we as a society have not yet learned to do well. There are two difficult parts to the task: figuring out what to do, and then learning the skills of doing it. The first is not something any single person can hope to do on their own. It is a puzzle which needs to be put together by the contributions of many people. I am grateful for the many individuals and organizations who have contributed insights to my still primitive understanding of mathematics teaching. These include NCTM, MAA, AMS, AWM, MER, the Stats workshops, the Prestats workshops, the many people who have contributed to these organizations and their publications, the Center for Teaching Effectiveness and my colleagues at the University of Texas, and the many students (especially those in my problem solving classes for prospective teachers) who have given me feedback and insights into how and why they learn or don’t learn. To paraphrase Newton, we must stand on the shoulders of many dedicated people (few, if any, of them giants) who have provided pieces of the puzzle. I hope I can add an additional pair of shoulders for others to stand on.

As incompletely as I have put together the puzzle of what to do, my understanding of that always seems to be far ahead of my ability to do it. Learning to be patient, to see just where students are having difficulty, to say the right things at the right time, to hold back when students need to figure things out for themselves or when criticism is not helpful, and to come up with appropriate hints skills I have made progress on, but still need to continue developing. I hope, though, that if I practice them as best I can, I will accomplish two goals: my students will learn mathematics better, and my students who intend to become or are already teachers can learn these important teaching skills a little more easily than if I hadn’t tried.