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2014 Dean’s Award: Anil Venkatesh

Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching

Students’ rejection of abstraction is one of the major challenges of teaching mathematics, Anil Venkatesh says. As an instructor of laboratory calculus at Duke for the past three years, he has been searching for ways to bring the abstract to life for students.

“Framing assessments within memorable applications helps students work productively with unfamiliar abstractions by placing them in a relatable context,” says Venkatesh, a recipient of the 2014 Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching from The Graduate School. “With these techniques, my students approach mathematics not as a self-contained field, but as a relatable tool that describes and informs the world we inhabit.”

For instance, to help Calculus I students understand logarithms as something more than a button on their calculators, Venkatesh asked them to compare the strength of two earthquakes on the Richter scale.

“When they discovered, to their surprise, that the latter releases twice as much energy, it promoted a discussion of how the incredibly slow-growing logarithmic curve takes twice as long to get to 9.0 than 8.8,” a faculty member who nominated Venkatesh for the award says. “This exercise framed the distinctive growth rate of logarithms in a practical context.”

Earthquakes also pop up in a lab section that Venkatesh is designing, where they help present logarithms in the context of contemporary social and scientific issues. Students use real seismic data to learn how to use logarithmic plotting to rediscover the Gutenberg-Richter law. They then use the law to estimate the chances of a catastrophic earthquake in a given year and discuss how a hypothetical government should interpret these results.

Venkatesh has also applied his creative thinking to experimenting with a flipped classroom. In the assessment portion of a Calculus I course, he asked students to work in groups to write high-school-level textbook sections about key course topics. He then had the groups review each other’s drafts a week before they were due.

“The results were very compelling,” says Venkatesh, who is working with one of the undergraduate teaching assistants on an article about the experiment for journal submission. “By engaging with mathematics in the higher-order learning processes of synthesis and evaluation, my students were more self-critical of their comprehension and became more confident in their grasp of material.

“Moreover, students even used their reports as study guides for subsequent tests. By creating their own study materials, my students were able to transform passive review activities into an active part of the learning process.”

Comments from Faculty

“The teaching of Anil Venkatesh exemplifies and elaborates the virtues of direct contact between teacher and student.”

“His entrepreneurial approach is preparing him for a position of leadership and makes him the ideal example of excellence in teaching.”

“[Experimenting with a flipped classroom] is a difficult and time-consuming task for even the more experienced of us teaching faculty. It is thus highly admirable that a graduate student would take on such a task, and moreover, do it very well.”

“His course evaluation numbers have skyrocketed. In part, I believe students responded extremely well to his close work with his undergraduate teaching assistants in spring 2013. In my capacity as lab supervisor, I assigned Anil two students who had completed my Math 105L and Math 106L classes. He did a great job coordinating with them. As he introduced new teaching methodology, he undertook the careful and delicate job of explaining to his TAs precisely how and why his ideas were to be implemented.”

Comments from Students

“The strongest point of the course was the instructor’s thorough knowledge of the material and ability to apply it to real-world problems.”

“I LOVE the fact that he constantly drew connections to concepts beyond the coursework, very interesting and intellectual.”

“Writing skills in math through the labs was really helpful. We covered so much and I learned an incredible amount.”

“[Venkatesh’s class] definitely got me more interested in math, and I believe I will take math beyond my major requirement.”

About Anil Venkatesh

Anil Venkatesh is a PhD candidate in mathematics. He is currently enrolled in the Certificate in College Teaching program offered by The Graduate School and holds a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation. His research focuses on solving open problems in number theory using topological (Hodge theoretic) methods. He received a BA in mathematics and a BSE in electrical engineering, both summa cum laude, from the University of Pennsylvania.