Practicing What He Teaches

DSC_2270 copy

Professor of mathematics Mark Mills practices what he teaches. Last summer, he sat for his second professional actuarial exam—not as a prospective actuary, but as a faculty member intent on doing a better job walking in his students’ shoes. And it is not the first time.

Mills, along with faculty colleagues Robert Maurer (accounting, retired) and Debela Birru (business management), created Central’s actuarial science major in 2009 and has been growing the program since. While many colleges and universities cut programs during that period, Central added the interdisciplinary major just after the 2008 recession.

“We were seeing good math students coming in who were headed more in the business direction than the science direction,” Mills says. “As I talked to business colleagues, they also saw talented students who were interested in the field but were not able to cover all the bases without stepping outside their major in business management or economics.”

Mills says Central was able to package courses already available on campus to meet the requirements of the Society of Actuaries and make sure students would be prepared when they entered the field.

Actuaries are business professionals who analyze risk, using math, statistics, financial theory and business principles to assess the impact of future events. Associates and Fellows in the Society of Actuaries completea rigorous set of up to nine professional exams to gain certification to work with life insurance companies, retirement plans, health benefit systems, financial and investment management firms, and other emerging businesses.


Mills, who earned his Ph.D. in mathematics and joined Central’s faculty in 1999, says he ventured into the field of actuarial science because he wants to show students how to use math in the world. “My interests are in applied math—statistics, probability and using math to problem solve in a variety of ways,” he says.

During the 2006-07 academic year, Mills worked part-time in the test lab at Pella Corporation to learn how mathematics and statistics were used in the working world. “It was a chance to taste how math is applied in manufacturing and to see where math abilities are used in the workplace (measurements, statistics, data mining),” Mills says. “I analyzed data sets related to moisture testing of windows and predicted percentages of warranty claims based on available data.”

Mills’ next real world stop came in 2012, when he took his first actuarial exam, known in the industry as Exam P, for probability. “I taught the probability course at Central and had been advising my students to take courses to be prepared for the professional exams,” Mills says, “but I hadn’t taken the exams myself, so it felt hollow to keep recommending without the firsthand experience.”

Mills was also curious. “My real impetus for taking these exams is to learn, ‘Am I really preparing my students?’” he says. Through taking the exams, Mills has found ways to improve Central’s actuarial classes. “I learned there were gaps in our coursework,” he says, “and that there are some tricks you can use to solve problems or formulas that will save you time.”


Mills’ former students and colleagues say that “going the extra mile” is characteristic of Mills’ dedication to his students and profession.

Steven Grotzinger ’14, an actuarial science grad and employee of EquiTrust Life Insurance Company in West Des Moines, says, “Dr. Mills has the students’ best interest in mind at all times. Even after graduation, he has been willing to help with the exam process and exam material. I appreciate his hands-on experience because he knows the difficulty of the exams firsthand and is able to help students, both past and present, to understand the time and effort required to pass them.”

When Grotzinger interviewed for the internship that led to his full-time job, he found his supervisors were impressed by the variety of classes required at Central. “Dr. Mills is always looking to improve his way of teaching and ways to improve the major,” Grotzinger says. “He has done a great job, as is evident by the students that end up in an actuarial role after college.”

Assistant professor of economics Jessica Schuring ’04 is another testament to Grotzinger’s recent experience. Schuring, also Mills’ former student, now co-directs the actuarial science major with him.

“As a student, I remember him as incredibly caring,” Schuring says, “both inside and outside the classroom. He was always willing to give you time for your career questions or other questions about life. He cared about you as a person and was always willing to listen.” Schuring says this carried over as she and Mills became colleagues. ”When he commits to anything,” she says, “he is fully on board and gives his all.”

Students studying for actuarial exams benefit from Mark Mills' experience taking the tests.

Students studying for actuarial exams benefit from Mark Mills’ experience taking the tests.

It’s unusual for professors to take actuarial exams, Schuring says, because of the large time commitment—up to 400 hours of study. “If you are a practicing actuary in the field, it’s lucrative to pass the exams,” Schuring says, “because there are salary increases and promotions attached. But in academia, taking the exams and all of the required study time is totally for the students’ benefit.”

Schuring knows what she’s talking about. After graduating from Central, she worked at Nationwide Insurance in Des Moines while completing her M.B.A. During that time, she also took the first actuarial exam while on the job. Schuring then earned a Ph.D. in economics, and she says Mills wrote letters of recommendation to support all of her career steps.

Schuring returned to Central in a visiting faculty position in 2010, and she is now in the tenure process with Mills serving as a second evaluator (outside the economics department).


When reflecting on the importance of Mills practicing what he teaches, Schuring says the benefit for students is huge. “These professional exams are a big unknown for them—it’s the first time they’ve taken an exam that wasn’t tied to a syllabus,” Schuring says. “To have someone who has just walked through the process and studies with the students is a tremendous benefit.”

After taking Exam P, Mills offered question-and-answer sessions every Friday over his lunch hour for students preparing for the exam. “I made up exam questions or used problems from old exams,” Mills says. “I really wanted to help students be successful based on my exam experience.” Now that he’s completed the second exam (Exam FM, for Financial Math), Mills expects to share that experience too.

“We are much better teachers and advisers when we know where our students are headed,” Mills says. ”I really want to know that I am preparing my students well, and I feel like I learned that. I’m looking forward to a productive year in our program and to raise the expectations that students complete exams.”

Both Mills and Schuring say that putting greater emphasis on the professional exams within the curriculum is important for students.

“Students without exams aren’t getting hired,” Schuring says. “In fact, some internships aren’t hiring those without exams.”

Preparing students for exams is vital to give them a foot in the door, Mills says, but he also wants them to have knowledge they need beyond the exams. “We plan to strike a middle ground of preparing for exams and knowledge for the long run,” he says.

Another plus for Central’s actuarial program is that students can earn Validation by Educational Experience credits (VEE credits) prior to graduation. “VEEs are areas in which colleges can become certified by the Society of Actuaries,” Mills explained. “Central students who complete the actuarial science major can easily complete VEEs before graduation in economics, corporate finance and applied statistical methods.”

Since the 2008 recession, the market demand for actuaries has grown, which has increased both income and job security. That demand is also reflected in the increased enrollment in the Central program. Mills and Schuring are currently advising 11 declared majors, plus many first- and second-year students who have expressed interest in the major.

Mills hasn’t ruled out taking additional exams in the future. The experience he’s gained has made the intense studying worthwhile, enabling him to meet his goal of better preparing students for the tests. Central actuarial students thank him for putting himself in their shoes, and they’ll reap the benefits in the career world.

To encourage serious, intellectual discourse on Civitas, please include your first and last name when commenting. Anonymous comments will be removed.

Comments are closed.