Lamar math professor recognized for teaching excellence

Kumer Das

The Mathematical Association of America has chosen Kumer Das, associate professor of mathematics at Lamar University, to receive its Alder Award for 2013. A beginning college or university mathematics faculty member is given the award each year for distinguished teaching, and no more than three are awarded per year throughout the United States and Canada.

Das will receive the award at the Math Fest Ceremony in Hartford, Conn., on Aug. 2.

Das credited his students and his colleagues for his success at Lamar and said that the award was “a great honor for (him) as well as for Lamar.”

MaryE Wilkinson, interim chair of the department of mathematics and associate professor said that Das is an exceptional faculty member.

“We have been very lucky to have him in our department,” she said. “He is really good.”

Wilkinson said that there are two things that make Das such an effective professor.

“First is his dedication to undergraduate students, and second is his knowledge of statistics,” Wilkinson said. “He is really an excellent statistician.”

Steve Doblin, provost at Lamar and vice president for academic affairs, reiterated the importance of the Alder Award to the university.

“This is really a prestigious award,” he said. “Having a Lamar University faculty member being recognized this way is tremendously exciting and reflects well not only on Dr. Das, but also in the environment in which he works. I’m a mathematician and still teach a math course each fall, so I can really appreciate the import of this award.”

Michael Boyd, a senior mathematics major at Lamar, said what sets Das apart from other professors is that he tries to make learning statistics enjoyable for his students.

“He’s got a sense of humor,” Boyd said. “He always makes (the class) feel like more of a discussion as opposed to a lecture.”

Boyd said that Das is also able to simplify problems that most students would have a difficult time understanding.

“He can take a certain complex theory or problem, and with a minimal amount of words or analogies, he makes the students understand it.”

Boyd said he appreciates the professor’s commitment to his students.

“He goes above and beyond what you would think a professor’s responsibility is,” Boyd said. “I want to be an actuary, which requires exams to get credentials. They are hard exams and have nothing to do with college. (Das) supplied me with some of his own books and study materials for these exams. His door has always been open to me when I have questions.”

Das said that building relationships with students like Boyd is an important aspect of his teaching methodology.

“I listen to my students,” he said. “In the beginning of the class each year, I distribute a questionnaire among the students. I ask very simple questions.”

Das’s questions include asking students where they are from, what classes they are taking and what hobbies they enjoy. The questionnaire also includes more serious questions that relate to the class.

“I ask them why they are taking the course and what their weaknesses (in math) are,” he said.

Das then invites the student to his office to go over the questionnaire and offers them bonus points for doing so.

“Students may feel shy or uncomfortable coming to a professor’s office,” Das said. “When the student shows up, I look at the questionnaire, but my primary goal is to just talk with them. I ask them questions like what is your favorite NFL team. I am a very big NFL fan, and I talk to them about the Dallas Cowboys and the Texans or whatever team (they are interested in). After I meet with them about 10 or 15 minutes, they do not feel uncomfortable in my office.”

Once Das finds out what the students’ interests may be, he then tries to mention some of those interests at the beginning of each class.

“I may say ‘The Dallas Cowboys played great today,’ or ‘That was not Tony Romo’s day,’” he said. “I’ve found that the students get much more involved when I try to present examples involving football, everyday news or business because then they understand that I am not just a professor who is talking about math, which they may not like. This way students get connected and get involved in discussion.”

Das, 40, is originally from Bangladesh and has a wife named Reena, 8-year-old son Pranjol and a 4-year-old daughter, Purba. Das moved to the United States in 1999 and to Beaumont in 2005. He joined Lamar’s Department of Mathematics after completing a Ph.D. at Auburn University. Das became an associate professor at Lamar in 2011.

“We like Southeast Texas culture and its crawfish,” he said.

Teaching skills seem to be passed down from generation to generation, as both of Das’ parents were teachers as well.

“My father taught English and my mother taught mathematics,” Das said. “My father was also an awarded teacher in Bangladesh. I follow his footsteps and feel very proud.”

The only thing Das said he hopes Lamar can improve on is undergraduate student involvement in research.

“Undergraduate student research is one of my primary targets,” he said. “I want to advocate for undergraduate and graduate research as much as I can.”

Das is currently on faculty development leave at the Statistical and Applied Mathematical Sciences Institute (SAMSI) in Research Triangle Park, N.C., where he is taking part in research with Duke University and University of North Carolina.

“We’re researching healthcare data analyzing the healthcare system,” Das said. “For example, we are trying to find out what is the best way to allocate kidneys (from donors) to patients.”

Das will return from his sabbatical in June, and said he plans to make Lamar his home for many years to come.

“I enjoy teaching at Lamar very much,” Das said.

Das is the first professor from Lamar University to ever receive the Alder Award. In January 2003, the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) established the Henry L. Alder Award for distinguished teaching to honor beginning college or university faculty whose teaching has been extra ordinarily successful and whose effectiveness in teaching undergraduate mathematics is shown to have influence beyond their own classrooms, according to MAA. An awardee must have taught full time in a mathematical science in the United States or Canada for at least two, but not more than seven, years since receiving the Ph.D. Each year, at most three college or university teachers are to be honored with this national award and are to receive $1,000 and a certificate of recognition from the MAA. Award recipients are expected to make a presentation at one of the national meetings of the MAA. Nominations for the award may be made by any member of the MAA or by any section of the MAA. The names of all the Math Fest 2013 award winners will be announced on the MAA website, in early summer.