Louise Hay Award

2007 Winner: Virginia McShane Warfield


In recognition of her long career of dedicated service to mathematics and mathematics education, the AWM is pleased to present the Seventeenth Annual Louise Hay Award to Virginia McShane Warfield of the University of Washington.

Virginia Warfield received her doctorate from Brown University in 1971 under the direction of Wendell Fleming and continued to contribute to the field of stochastic analysis for several years. At the same time she became increasingly absorbed by problems of mathematics education through her work with Project SEED, a highly regarded mathematics program whose goal was to promote sense-making mathematical activities for fourth through sixth grade students.

Her work with Project SEED led to her becoming the leader of the University of Washington mathematics department’s entry-level mathematics courses, which she restructured in ways that have stood the test of time and which she continues to oversee. Eventually, teacher preparation and enhancement, both of K–12 teachers and mathematics graduate students, became a major focus of her activity. She significantly revised the courses for future elementary teachers and has served as a mentor for graduate students throughout her years at the university.

From 1994 to 2001, she was project director for “Preparing Future Faculty” in which, among other things, she arranged for graduate students to spend time at local community or four-year colleges, took them to conferences on educational issues, and arranged conferences with guest speakers. She also began a series of “brown bag lunches” for faculty and graduate students to talk over issues related to their teaching, and since 1994 she has posted electronic newsletters based on those discussions. A letter written jointly by eight recent students states: “Her vision of education and her sense of optimistic possibility have encouraged us to reflect upon our development as teachers of mathematics and to seek ways in which we might contribute to a stronger, more effective mathematics education. Most important, though, is our recognition that Ginger has been instrumental in fostering a supportive and exciting environment in which to investigate and explore the many dimensions of mathematics education.”

In the broader community she was instrumental in creating Washington Teachers of Teachers of Mathematics (WAToToM), at which members of departments of mathematics and mathematics education from around the State get together for a week-end of conversation and idea-sharing. Vaughn Foster-Grahler of Evergreen State College wrote that “it has been her leadership that had kept [WAToToM] a vibrant and integral component of math education in Washington State. . . . Ginger is a tireless advocate for strengthening the level of preparation of K–12 math teachers and supporting the types of pedagogies that lead to success for all students.”

During the past ten years she has played a leading role in three major NSF-funded teacher enhancement projects: Creating a Community of Mathematics Learners, Extending the Community of Mathematics Learners, and Graduate Teaching Fellows in K–12 Education (GK–12), all of which partner University of Washington faculty and graduate students with in-service teachers of mathematics. Warfield is described as a master in integrating various levels of math learners—creating relationships between grade school teachers and mathematicians—and as having special concern for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and underrepresented groups. At one GK–12 elementary school the percentage of students who passed the state mathematics standard rose in two years from under 10% to about 55%, which is above the state average. Currently, she is Co-PI of a new project, Teaching for the Environment: Active Mathematics on the Olympic Peninsula. In discussing the impact of her work, Selim Tuncel, chair of the University of Washington mathematics department, praised “her commitment to improving mathematics education at all educational levels, her clear vision of the key elements for achieving this goal, her gentle persistence, and her ability to work effectively within a research department as well as in collaboration with the K–16 education communities.”

Warfield has also made significant contributions to mathematics education research through her collaboration with the French mathematician Guy Brousseau, a pioneer in the “didactics of mathematics,” the scientific study of issues in mathematics teaching and learning. This collaboration has led to publication of several articles, translation and co-editorship of a book, and, most recently, a monograph about Brousseau’s work and the nature of didactics. 

Among her many professional activities, Warfield has been a member of the National Faculty (by election), of Sigma Xi, of the Association pour Recherche en Didactiques des Mathématiques, and of the Mathematical Association of America’s committees on Professional Development and Mathematical Education of Teachers. For the Association for Women in Mathematics she has served in several capacities: Chair of the Education Committee, Member of the Association Review Group for the revision of the NCTM Standards, Member-at-large of the Executive Committee, and Education Column Editor for the AWM Newsletter.

To describe her work, Janet P. Ray, professor emeritus from the Seattle Central Community College wrote: “It would be difficult to overstate the contributions Ginger has made to mathematics education. Whether through the organizations she has founded, the events she’s sponsored, or the connections she’s forged, Ginger’s work has had a huge impact. She has also made a difference in more subtle, though no less profound ways—through example and through innumerable small acts of kindness.”

AWM is proud to honor Virginia M. Warfield for her contributions to education through her teaching, graduate student training and mentoring, work on the didactics of mathematics, and outreach and collaborations with K–16 communities.

Response from Virginia McShane Warfield:

I am deeply honored and very much moved by this award. With it, the AWM has spoken very directly to the concerns and issues that have been most basic in my mathematical life, and has told me that some, at least, of my decisions have had the impact I hoped for.

My first efforts to articulate my gratitude left me somewhat overwhelmed. It started with my parents and siblings, whose lives and conversations made it clear that the only reasonable thing for an adult to be was a mathematician, and that of course I could be one. Less explicit was the message that the only reasonable person to marry was a mathematician, but I picked it up anyway, and did that. His enduring support both of my mathematics and of my growing interest in issues of education set me firmly on the route I wound up traveling. After his death, the confidence and trust of our three children not only kept me from falling apart, but also made it possible for me to gain momentum in the direction we had set for me and sustain it through many solo years. And in the past few years, my new husband had given me a new kind of support by providing the perspective of a pediatrician and the interest of a life-long learner.

That didn’t extend far enough, though, because an essential ingredient has been the support I have had from my department: a succession of chairs who were sometimes nonplussed by my suggestions, but never nonsupportive, and a collection of colleagues whose help ranged from cheering on the sidelines to being right there in the midst of projects. I valued every one of those forms of help. And that still wasn’t far enough, because my interests have led me off campus, and out of Seattle and out of the U.S., and everywhere I have found helpful and wonderful people.

As I said, that line of thinking became overwhelming, so I decided to be a little more focused. What one person or set of people made me veer away from the image I had grown up with of sitting around proving theorems and giving erudite lectures? The answer was clear: Bill Johntz and the 1971–72 fourth grade at Colman Elementary School. Project SEED was Bill’s brainchild, and it is what took a whole bunch of university mathematicians into inner city elementary schools to teach algebra by group discovery. I got to visit all the Seattle classes, and I also got to choose which one I taught. Never one for halfway measures, I chose the class with the lowest scores in the city on standardized tests—and watched them soak up exponents and variables and linear equations. There’s no way, after that year that anyone could tell me that low-scoring children lacked intellectual capacity. Nor could I be told that elementary school teachers have an easy job. And never since that time has there been any doubt in my mind that the people who have the most influence on the future of mathematics are the elementary school teachers—a career-shaping conviction indeed!

So I thank that whole cloud of people, and I thank the AWM. I promise that this award and what I have learned about Louise Hay herself will inspire me to keep going in as many of the directions you cited as I possibly can!