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Mathematics professor Dave Wells set to retire

4/18/2012 —


Scholarly Activities Focused on Mathematics education
Chair of American Math Competitions
Director of the Math League 


After 33 years of inscribing classroom blackboards with derivatives, secants, integrals and infinitesimals, David Wells, associate professor of mathematics at Penn State New Kensington, is turning in his chalk. He is set to retire at the end of the spring semester.

During more than three decades at the campus, Wells has taught undergraduate mathematics, engaged in scholarly research, and served the campus and the community.  Although teaching and learning styles have evolved, Wells’ connection to his students has remained, like Archimedes pi (the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter), constant.

“What I liked most about teaching is the interaction with the students, so I looked forward to teaching any course,” said Wells, who taught courses on college algebra, linear algebra, calculus, and differential equations. “While it has been documented that students today are less prepared for college than students 30 years ago,  I enjoy my students today as much as any that I have taught in the past."

Many campus students made their initial foray in the world of calculus through the portal of one of Well’s classes.  First-year students with no previous experience with limits, functions and variables presented the best challenges for Wells.

“Teaching calculus was an opportunity to introduce them to one of the great intellectual achievements of the human race,” said Wells, who was born in Atlanta but raised in Pittsburgh. “Along the way I discovered that I really enjoy guiding students to the ‘aha’ moments of insight.”

As a youngster, his interest in math was piqued by a book of math puzzles. As he grew older, his  passion was stoked by his stepmother, Jacqueline Gayle Wells, who taught at Penn State Greater Allegheny until 1992.

“I discovered some textbooks that my stepmother had used as an undergraduate,” said Wells, who earned bachelor’s in mathematics from the University of Pennsylvania. “Over the next few years she taught me some basic algebra to satisfy my curiosity.”

That curiosity eventually led to a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Pittsburgh and a teaching position at Ohio Dominican University. Six years later, in 1979, Wells joined the Penn State faculty.

“Coming to Penn State was an extremely fortuitous career move,” Wells said.  “It provided me with both the incentive and the opportunity to collaborate with other mathematicians on both scholarly and service-oriented projects.”

His scholarly activity focused primarily on mathematics education. Wells’ published works include co-authoring three college textbooks with Lynn Tilson, a former adjunct at the campus, and co-editing two books, "Contest Problem Book VIII: American Mathematics Competitions (AMC 10) Contests 2000-2007" and "Contest Problem Book IX: American Mathematics Competitions (AMC 12) Contests 2001-2007" with J. Douglas Faires, professor emeritus of mathematics at Youngstown State University.

"During the years covered by the books, Doug Faires and I co-chaired the committee responsible for constructing the two contests," said Wells, who was the AMC 12 contest committee chair. "The AMC books are edited and indexed collections of problems from the specified contests."

The AMC contests are administered annually to more than 200,000 high school students to help identify the students with truly exceptional mathematics talent. Many professional mathematicians cite the contests as the source of their initial interest in mathematics. Wells is the current chair of the Mathematical Association of America's Committee on the American Mathematics Competitions. The committee deals with policy issues involving the contests. Penn State New Kensington was the host site for the AMC competition since 2008.

In addition to organizing national contests, Wells was the director of the Mathematics League, an annual academic competition among ten local high schools. The format challenges the students' math skills by giving them the opportunity to go head-to-head with each other.  For more than 20 years, he wrote the questions on algebra, geometry and other areas of mathematics, and hosted the finals at the New Kensington campus. Among his many memories, his favorite math league moment was courtesy of Valley High School.

“A few years ago the Valley team began wearing team t-shirts to the competitions," said Wells, who stepped down as chair of the event in January. “I was both impressed and amused when I saw them walk in wearing shirts that read, ‘We add, subtract, multiply, divide, and conquer.’  They have come up with a different slogan every year since then.”

Wells has been the recipient of numerous teaching awards though out his career, beginning with the Excellence in Teaching Award from the campus in 1985 and culminating with the Milton S. Eisenhower Award for Distinguished Teaching from the University in 2009.

However, the accolades and accomplishments are overshadowed by his campus memories, most of which concern the students, faculty and staff that he has encountered over the years.

“I sometimes have a hard time believing that I have had the good fortune to work with such a talented and dedicated group, especially the mathematics faculty,” Wells said. 

He cites his relationships with Roy Myers, professor emeritus of mathematics and former campus executive officer, and current faculty, Javier Gomez-Calderon, professor of mathematics, and Kwang-Shang Wang, assistant professor of mathematics, as evidence of his auspicious arrival at the New Kensington campus.

“During my first years here, Roy was the best mentor and colleague I could have asked for,” Wells said. “Recently, I’ve had unusually harmonious relationships with Javier and Wang. Colleagues at other institutions wonder how we get along without designating a local department head, but we are always able to arrive at consensus decisions."

He was always appreciative of the contributions of the adjunct instructors at the campus, especially Greg DePalma and Rob Farinelli, “who have been willing to give much more than we have any right to demand from them.”  In addition, Wells had praise and admiration for the administrative support assistants in Academic Affairs Office, Ruth Herstek and Susan Dale. According to Wells, “I also don’t know how I would have survived the last few years without Ruth and Susan.”

Wells currently resides in Glenshaw with his wife, Alice, a retired nurse. Their daughter, Sarah, and granddaughter, Bella, live in Ashville, North Carolina. Wells says that Bella, a fourth-grader, loves mathematics “much to her grandfather’s delight.” Bella will see much more of her grandfather in the coming months. The Wells family is pulling up its western Pennsylvania roots and heading to Ashville to be closer to Sarah’s family. 

Retired life won’t be a governor on Wells’ professional or leisure engine.  When he’s not at the blackboard, Wells can be found playing the guitar and writing songs. Ashville’s geographical location in the Blue Ridge Mountains is a good fit for the trail hiking that he enjoys. Also, a return to teaching, albeit part-time, may be in the offing.

“I’ve contacted a local community college, and I can join the faculty as an adjunct when I’m ready,” said Wells. “With chalk becoming a part of the dark ages, I better learn to use a smart board.”

A retirement celebration for Wells was held April 12 at the campus. Amid the barbs and bon mots, colleagues, retired faculty, former students and friends reminisced with Wells and saluted his service to the profession. As of gift of appreciation from the campus, he was presented with an original painting by Bud Gibbons, professor of visual arts at the campus. 

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