A Theorem for Everyone

Russ Goodman

Russ Goodman wants every student in his math classrooms — majors and non-majors — to understand logic, prove their solutions, communicate results and leave feeling successful.

It’s all part of what drives him as a passionate associate professor of mathematics. It’s also part of what led him to one of his areas of mathematical interest — math in pop culture.

“What many don’t understand about math is the misconception that you solve a problem and move on. The real world doesn’t work that way; why would math? You have to communicate what that answer or solution means. You have to explain why the right answer has meaning to the real world. Students live in a Twitter world of instant information and math isn’t like that — it takes time to problem solve,” Goodman says.

Goodman himself spent hours problem solving as a student and says his own struggles as a distracted undergraduate now help him identify with some of today’s students. “Students struggle with devoting time to their studies because they live in an instant world. It’s rewarding when they ‘get it.’ For me, the fog would eventually lift and I would know what I needed to do to complete the problem,” he says.

Goodman originally wanted to be an astronaut, so he started in physics at the University of Texas-Arlington. “I drifted but took lots of math,” he says. “I stayed at UTA for my master’s and found my passion for teaching there.”

He loves how teaching “combines my love of math and connecting with people. You can’t be the stereotypical math nerd and teach at a place like Central. You have to connect with people,” Goodman explains.

Faculty colleague Keith Jones, professor of psychology, says Goodman’s “ability to connect so well with students reflects the genuine interest he has in them as fellow investigators of the world. Russ understands very well that successful teaching rests on the perspective that we are teaching students — people — rather than topics. His connection leads to an agreement of sorts that together, they are going to tackle tough problems, work hard toward important and high goals, and do so with a sense of joy that makes doing hard work together valuable.”

Math in the real world

Goodman’s zeal for connectivity motivated his research interest in mathematical applications in pop culture. “I want to know what’s trending with students, so I use it as a connecting point. I don’t want to be the old fuddy duddy who is out of touch with students’ interests. So I file away examples for moments in teaching. For example, when “A Beautiful Mind” professor John Nash died recently, I pulled out that fact. I also learn from my students about websites and apps they use.”

Goodman sometimes teaches Contemporary Mathematics for non-majors or those who may be math-phobic. “It’s rewarding to teach them and to help them have success in math for possibly the first time. We talk about codes and numbers (like the validity and schemes behind security codes, for example); financial math and real-world decision making; voting methods and techniques and sharing and apportionment (such as how 435 U.S. representative seats are awarded among the population).

“I didn’t learn any of these topics in my own math classes, but I want my students to learn more about math in the real world,” Goodman says.

Goodman also became interested in the dynamics of elections from a mathematical perspective — a timely topic with 2016 elections approaching. He has examined the mathematics of historical races and how history might have changed if candidates dropped out or different methods of vote counting were employed.

Goodman integrates real-world applications into his mathematics courses, such as math's role in decision-making and voting methods.

Goodman integrates real-world applications into mathematics courses.

“There’s a theorem — Arrow’s Theorem — that says ‘it is mathematically impossible to devise a vote-counting method that satisfies all reasonable fairness criteria.’ So basically, every common vote-counting technique violates fairness. If you remove a candidate, for example, the votes could go elsewhere but don’t necessarily reflect popular vote.

“The dynamics of vote-counting techniques gets interesting, along with the politics of it,” Goodman explains, as he talks about the paradoxes of popular and electoral votes, majority and plurality, ranking and point systems.

Another timely research interest is sports analytics, which, Goodman says, “blends my two worlds in math and statistics and athletics.” Goodman, who also coaches women’s soccer, developed an honors seminar in sports analytics that has drawn many first-year students. “We analyze the data behind coaching and playing decisions,” Goodman explains. “There’s also a plan to develop a service-learning component as students deliver data and analysis to Central’s coaches to help them be even more strategic in allocating resources. The data also help connect students to teams and help the teams be even better.”

Joe Eilers ’18, a math and physics major from West Des Moines, enrolled in the Sports Analytics honors seminar and notes that Goodman “treats his students like adults. He is 100 percent willing to put as much effort into helping you as you are to help yourself. He is a great communicator, encourages student participation in class and gives out different types of assignments to adjust for different learning styles.”

The proof is in the progress

Goodman’s own enthusiastic interpretation of why he thrives on his work is this: “My three main passions are family, soccer and math. I want to have fun with what I’m doing. My mentor told me ‘like what you do, who you do it with and how you do it.’ Central met all three of these criteria when I finished my Ph.D. at the University of Oklahoma.”

The mathematics and computer science department, which Goodman currently chairs, graduates eight to 10 majors each year. “Most students start with calculus and then move to more abstract courses. They need to know how to effectively express conceptual thoughts. As the semesters pass, it’s fun to see their progress toward becoming mathematicians.”

Mathematics major and 2015 honors graduate Ashley Hulsing took five courses from Goodman, including Intro to Computer Algebra Systems, Probability, Statistics, Differential Equations and Abstract Algebra.

“Dr. Goodman is very passionate about his job and makes learning from him easy,” she says. “He would always give a good knowledge base in class, where he would start with definitions and then work his way into examples, giving us activities and examples to work through in small groups. He always encouraged us to ask questions during instruction but especially outside of class, during office hours if we needed further explanation.” Hulsing plans to teach secondary math in the BGM School District in eastern Iowa.

Teacher as coach

For Goodman, serving as an assistant coach is just another form of teaching. “When I first came to Central, I wanted to be part of something, so I volunteered to be an assistant coach — and I have coached women’s soccer for 10 of the 13 years I’ve taught here. Coaching meshes well with my role as a professor and the number of student athletes that are in my classroom. It gives me another level of credibility with the students, on and off the field. We’ve seen the worst of times and the best of times together.”

The best of times was this past season when the team ranked No. 8 in the region, made it to the championship match of the Iowa Conference tournament and won the National Soccer Coaches Association of America Silver Team Ethics and Sportsmanship Award, while holding a 3.4 team GPA.

Russ Goodman

His theorem for everything

In 2010, Goodman’s passion and devotion was recognized by faculty colleagues with the Dr. John Wesselink Award for Outstanding Performance in Institutional Service. “I want to serve. I will take every opportunity to serve. I get impatient with others who don’t,” he admits.

“There is no challenge that the college faces where Russ would not roll up his sleeves and say, ‘Let’s get to work!’” Jones says. “Russ is what I call a pragmatic idealist. He understands the positive and negative realities of a situation and will strive for the best possible outcome, always with an eye on the college being its best self.”

Part of Goodman’s service has involved outreach to area elementary and secondary math teachers. “It’s fun to connect with classroom teachers. My wife teaches, so I’ve also volunteered in the local schools.”

In his rare downtime, Goodman chooses to grade Advanced Placement calculus exams, saying “It makes me a better teacher.” That’s also the reason he plans to sit in on Computer Science 109 Intro to Information Management class this fall. “It gives me credibility to teach sports analytics with an information systems background, and it’s another opportunity to connect with colleagues and students.”

Goodman sums up with his Theorem for Everything: “I love what I do, love the people I work with in math, love the people I work with in athletics. It’s the people who make Central a meaningful place to be.”

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