Louise Hay Award

2010 Winner: Phyllis Z. Chinn


In recognition of her contributions to mathematics education at all levels, the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) presents the Twentieth Annual Louise Hay Award to Phyllis Z. Chinn, Professor of Mathematics at Humboldt State University.

Phyllis Chinn’s career is marked by an eagerness to enliven everybody who enters her sphere of influence—school students, teachers, undergraduates, and her colleagues—with the excitement of mathematics, and by a principled conviction that the best way to accomplish this is through discovery learning. At Humboldt State University she established the “Expanding Your Horizons” conference to introduce middle grades girls to mathematics, science and engineering, and coached high school students for the Mandelbrot Math Competition. She has developed courses for prospective and practicing elementary, middle and high school teachers in problem solving, school mathematics from an advanced standpoint, calculus, and graph theory. She directed two professional development programs for K–12 teachers, the Redwood Area Math Project and the North Coast Mathematics and Science Initiative. Perhaps her most influential work was through project PROMPT, which engaged college and university faculty in rethinking the content and pedagogy for prospective elementary and middle school teachers. This project spawned similar projects in Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma.

Throughout this intense activity, Phyllis has maintained the creative mathematical spark, which has led her to discover fascinating research questions in graph theory arising from Cuisenaire rods. She has an Erdös number of one. And it should not go without mention that a generation of teachers has learned from her how to juggle. Juggling, she argues, teaches us the merits of practice and persistence and illustrates the usefulness of algorithms.

Finally, Phyllis has been an advocate for women in mathematics and science throughout her career. She developed and taught courses on women in science and mathematics. In the words of Diane Johnson, a professor of mathematics at Humboldt State University, Phyllis was a “proud and successful mother, … the first women tenured in our department, and … a mentor and inspiration to those of us who have followed her.”

The AWM is pleased to honor Phyllis Chinn for her dedication to mathematical discovery both at the frontiers of research and in the classroom and for her devotion to sharing her love of mathematics with students, teachers, and colleagues.

Response from Phyllis Z. Chinn:

I am deeply honored by this award and humbled by the accomplishments of the women who have received the award before me.

I entered the field of mathematics in an era when few women were encouraged to excel in the sciences and mathematics. I was fortunate to have parents who believed I could do anything I chose to do, and high school and college math professors who loved teaching and encouraged me to follow a nontraditional career path. And I am blessed to have a husband who was primary caregiver for our now-grown children when they were young, enabling me to focus more fully on my career as mathematician/mathematics educator.

When I began teaching at Humboldt State University in 1975, there was only one tenure-track woman in biology and no others in the sciences except for the nursing department. During my interview for the position, I was asked whether I was prepared to be a role model. I was taken aback by the question and totally unsure how to respond; as a woman I was certainly going to be a role model of sorts but I was not planning a feminist campaign in the department. I guess it was a good enough answer since I got the job. Now, 34 years later there are tenured women in virtually all of the science and natural resource departments at the university. Encouraging progress indeed!

Over the years I have had the support of many colleagues in my experimenting with discovery learning, hands-on activity-based learning, and working extensively with K-12 teachers and the mathematics professors who teach them in a variety of settings. I have surely learned as much from those I teach as they have from me.

As a result of a grant from the National Science Foundation, with Miriam Leiva as mentor and contact, my co-PI Dale Oliver and I worked with over 100 college professors who were teaching math to pre-service elementary school teachers. We called our project PROMPT: Professors Rethinking Options in Mathematics for Prospective Teachers. Many of the “PROMPTers” are still actively working to improve the ways potential teachers experience math in college classes: to leave the teachers feeling empowered in their own teaching, willing to experiment and encourage students to make sense of math.

In my own research I have become interested in significant questions that grow out of extensions of elementary school patterns and work; for example, Cuisenaire rods piqued my interest in advanced counting problems that could be motivated from these manipulatives. I have since been asking and answering a variety of related number theory and combinatorics questions and involving several other mathematicians in similar research. It excites me to see research mathematicians realize that elementary school children can engage in the same creative processes of mathematical thinking that we do, if only their teachers are confident and encourage understanding and creativity in mathematics.

In all of my teaching and presentations I am committed to engaging my audience in thinking about mathematics, so here is a question for you to consider: how many 1’s are used among all of the compositions (ordered sums) of n? Or, using manipulatives: how many white (1 cm) rods are used among all the trains of length n cm?

Many thanks to the AWM and those who nominated me for this prestigious award.