Louise Hay Award

2008 Winner: Harriet S. Pollatsek


In recognition of her wide range of outstanding contributions to mathematics education, the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) presents the Eighteenth Annual Louise Hay Award to Harriet S. Pollatsek of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Mount Holyoke College.

Harriet Pollatsek received her doctorate from the University of Michigan in 1967 under the direction of Jack McLaughlin. Throughout her career she has remained an active mathematical researcher, with contributions ranging from cohomology of linear groups, to difference sets in finite groups, and quantum error correcting codes, and visiting appointments at the University of Oregon, University of Cambridge, Queen Mary College of the University of London, and the University of Sussex.

What has most characterized her entire career is her love of mathematics and her energy and enthusiasm for fostering a love of it in others. She believes that everyone can benefit from learning mathematics and that the way it is taught should give students multiple opportunities to be brought into the mathematical fold.

As a faculty member at Mount Holyoke College since 1970, she expanded the department’s view of what can serve as a potential entry point into the major by helping develop 100-level “explorations” courses, which students may use as prerequisites for certain non-calculus mathematics major requirements. She was one of the designers of the Five College Calculus in Context sequence, played a large role in creating and piloting “Case Studies in Quantitative Reasoning,” played a key role in a Dana Foundation effort to increase under-represented individuals in mathematics courses, was one of the developers of a National Endowment for the Humanities–funded program to spread mathematics across the curriculum, and was critical in the design of a program to allow Mount Holyoke students to graduate with an accredited engineering major through the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

For majors and potential majors, she co-developed an innovative mathematics laboratory course and then became a co-author and the lead editor of a textbook for it, Laboratories in Mathematical Experimentation. This course has become the lynchpin of the mathematics major at Mount Holyoke. Students in the course first explore interesting mathematical questions by generating examples and discerning patterns and then state and prove theorems about them. After graduation, students often report that it was the laboratory course that most influenced their decision to major in the department and that the course made them more likely to read mathematics actively, to “mess around” with a problem, and to formulate an argument clearly. Following her philosophy of finding ways to introduce students as early as possible to the richness of mathematics, she developed a course in Lie groups, which has only calculus and linear algebra as a prerequisite and may be taken independently of a standard abstract algebra course. In addition, she has directed many independent students and twice directed summer research groups.

Current students laud her patience, her clarity, her availability, her thoughtfulness, and her craft. It is clear from their comments that every assignment, every test, every interaction is calculated to foster their understanding and to use their growing understanding of the material to win them over. To address the range of student backgrounds and abilities, she assigns challenge problems, a certain number of which a student must tackle with some success in order to earn an A or A–. Former students are equally enthusiastic. For instance, one wrote: “The passion that Harriet has in mathematics and in the education of mathematics has always been an inspiration to me; more importantly, her faith in what I can achieve and who I can become will always remain a strong motivation to me in the days to come.” Another stated: “She was great in the classroom, is incredibly wonderful to her students, seems totally unruffled all the time, is administratively and bureaucratically very successful, and just seems to ‘do it all’ with class and dignity.” A third referred to the way she continues to help students long after they have left the campus: “She understands and is committed to the notion that education doesn’t take place just in the classroom, and it doesn’t take place just in a four-year window. Education can take place in every interaction, and mentoring can continue for decades.”

Harriet Pollatsek has made major contributions to mathematics education beyond the teaching of undergraduates. She has served for 20 years as an active and valued advisor for Mount Holyoke’s SummerMath and SEARCH programs (for high school students) and for the SummerMath for Teachers program (for K– 12 teachers). In describing her work with them, the program directors commented that she has “the ability to be optimistic and realistic at the same time” and “to make you feel important and valued while spurring you to look critically at your work,” and that she “is never too busy to find a time to listen and to give her scrupulously honest and well-thought-out feedback. If she makes a suggestion you know it is solidly grounded and never given lightly.”

At the national level, in addition to her co-authorship of mathematics textbooks and other curricular materials, she chaired the Mathematical Association of America’s Committee on the Undergraduate Program in Mathematics (CUPM) and led the writing team that produced the CUPM Curriculum Guide 2004: Undergraduate Programs and Courses in the Mathematical Sciences. David Bressoud, current chair of CUPM and a member of the writing team wrote: “This was an amazingly ambitious undertaking. For the first time, CUPM was looking not just at the sequence of courses that lead to the mathematics major, but at all courses offered by departments of mathematics. . . . The goal was nothing less than a set of recommendations that departments could use to help leverage resources and reform. Harriet Pollatsek did an amazing job of shepherding this project. . . . She kept the team pulling together . . . and helped ensure a consistently high level of work. She refused to be named first author on this report, but she should have been so acknowledged.” Bressoud went on to write that the Curriculum Guide “has been a contribution to mathematics education with an importance that it is hard to over-estimate.”

By the Louise Hay Award, AWM is proud to honor Harriet S. Pollatsek for her steadfast enthusiasm and commitment to the goal of leading as many students as possible to a genuine and deep appreciation for mathematics and mathematical thinking.

Response from Harriet S. Pollatsek:

When I arrived at Mount Holyoke in 1970, Louise Hay’s absence there was still keenly felt. So I was aware of her accomplishments, and they were an inspiration to me. Therefore, it is with particular gratitude and delight that I receive this award bearing her name. In accepting it, I think of myself as a representative of the many mathematicians and educators who do the excellent and important work that the Hay Award recognizes.

In that spirit, I’d like to acknowledge some of the people who have shaped and inspired me as a mathematician and a teacher. My high school teacher Kate Pankin loved mathematics so much that her eyes would glisten when she taught. I was fortunate to learn calculus from Edwin Moise, a man ahead of his time as a topflight researcher dedicating himself to improving the learning and teaching of mathematics. I fell in love with algebra in Donald Higman’s classes, and Jack McLaughlin showed me the teacher/mathematician as consummate craftsman and artist. I’ve learned much from the research mathematicians I’ve worked with over the years, from my Calculus in Context comrades, from the mathematics educators of the SummerMath programs and their teacher-collaborators, from the Mount Holyoke faculty in other disciplines with whom I’ve developed curriculum and taught, and perhaps most of all from my extraordinary colleagues in mathematics and statistics. My students at Mount Holyoke have been a constant source of inspiration; they push themselves to excel, but they always try to bring others along with them. A few years ago, one even came back to teach me. As the Committee on the Undergraduate Program in Mathematics prepared our CUPM Curriculum Guide 2004, I met – and learned from – dozens and dozens of generous and wise faculty in mathematics and in the mathematics-using disciplines, in addition to my fellow CUPM members, especially my co-writers.

Every one of us has a list, like mine, of people who have influenced our goals and helped us get closer to them. There is much more work for all of us to do, and I hope this award encourages others, as it does me. My profound thanks go to the Hay Award Selection Committee and to the AWM.