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Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology Newsletter

25th Year Faculty Anniversary: Dr. Henry Pollak, Mathematics Education

By • Feb 5th, 2014 • Category: Lead Story, Mathematics Education

Dr. Henry Pollak

Dr. Henry Pollak, Professor of Mathematics Education, celebrates over 25 years as a visiting professor at TC. He was born in Vienna, Austria, and moved to the US in February of 1940.

Dr. Pollak was a professional research mathematician for much of his career. Once he retired from research mathematics he extended his work in mathematics education.

His interest in mathematics goes back to the third grade. He has a composition book written in German where he wrote, “My father wants me to be a lawyer, but I want to be a mathematician.” He knew then that he wanted to be a mathematician. Later Dr. Pollak majored in mathematics at Yale University. He began his undergraduate work at Yale during World War II in the summer of 1944.

It became known to Dr. Pollak that a future mathematician should concentrate on analysis and topology. He took a year of point set topology with Dr. Ed Begle as a senior. This interaction was a critical time in his career.

Modern algebra began to be recognized as a third fundamental for a future mathematician a year or two later. He took a course with Dr. Birkhoff and Dr. MacLane at Harvard in his first year of graduate work and took a course on Riemann surfaces with Dr. Ahlfors, who became his thesis advisor. Dr. Pollak became fascinated with analysis as practiced by Dr. Arne Beurling during his year as a visiting professor. Dr. Henri Cartan taught what was perhaps the first course in algebraic topology on this side of the Atlantic at Harvard  University during his second graduate year. “Professor Ahlfors told me to take it, and I am delighted that I did.”  

In his last year of graduate work a notice appeared on the bulletin board that W. Deming Lewis of Bell Laboratories was interviewing doctoral candidates, including mathematicians. Dr. Pollak understood that, if he were offered a job at Bell Laboratories, it would be to do mathematics research, and he would not be paid to do something else, which appealed to him.

In 1951 he earned his PhD in mathematics from Harvard and went to work for Bell Labs, where Dr. Pollak became a successful research mathematician and was promoted to head the research organization in mathematics and statistics.

“You may begin to suspect that my experiences with the universality of applications of mathematics in the Bell System might inevitably lead to some involvement on my part with mathematics education. If, as I was beginning to see, interesting and useful applications of mathematics were everywhere around us and if in fact all major areas of mathematics were subject to the possibility of being important for applications outside of mathematics, should this not affect what mathematics we teach and how we teach it at all levels?”  

With the great increase in importance of discrete mathematics, Dr. Pollak and a number of his colleagues at Bell Labs were drawn to this development. He often attended Al Tucker’s Combinatorics Seminar at Princeton University, where educational connections for the research were also under discussion.

When the great Sputnik scare in the late 1950s hit the US, the National Science Foundation began to originate and support a number of educational projects at the elementary and secondary school levels in mathematics and science.  After the beginning of the Physical Sciences Study Committee (PSSC) in 1957, the largest of the mathematics projects, the School Mathematics Study Group (SMSG), began operations in the summer of 1958.  The chief organizers were Al Tucker, as the head of the organizing committee, and Ed Begle, the overall project leader. When they discussed whom to invite to the first planning and writing session in July, Dr. Pollak was invited although his work was primarily in industry.

About a year later, the National Science Foundation began to support a major effort to rethink undergraduate mathematics, which became the Committee on the Undergraduate Program in Mathematics (CUPM) of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA).  Dr. Pollak was asked to join the CUPM effort as well, where he became a member of the overall committee and also of the panel on mathematics for physical sciences and engineering. There were other separate panels on pre-graduate mathematics, on mathematics teacher education, on mathematics for the social and biological sciences, on mathematics for computing and mathematics for statistics, mathematics for two-year colleges, on applied mathematics, and other specialized issues. “But without question the most difficult task we undertook was to combine the results of all the individual studies into a single collection of courses which came as close as possible to covering all the needs for all the purposes and all the destinations of undergraduate mathematics students and could be offered by a fairly small department in a broad-purpose liberal arts college.” The result was called A General Curriculum in Mathematics for Colleges (GCMC).

In SMSG, Dr. Pollak was assigned to the team working on the first course in algebra. For the next 28 years he spent approximately 10-15% of his time and intellectual capital thinking about mathematics education. In fact, Dr. Pollak become chairman of the advisory committee to SMSG in the late 1960s and in 1975 became president of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). At the time he was deeply involved in two fields, one in mathematical research in an applied environment and the other in mathematics education at both the school and the college levels.

Dr. Pollak’s thirty-plus years as a mathematician at Bell Laboratories consisted of conversion from pure mathematics to an ever widening and deepening experience and an appreciation of what applied mathematics was truly all about. “I have no detailed records of how all this happened. It seems in retrospect as if, first of all, I had enough basic ability to become a reasonably good mathematician in whatever situation I found myself. Very importantly, I was not committed to any one particular branch of mathematics and had never developed the notion that there was one area in which I wanted to work exclusively. Yes, there were particular topics in which I became relatively expert but I never could turn down what looked like a nice problem no matter which field it was in. This was characteristic of many of the mathematicians at Bell Labs. They had their specialties but couldn’t resist a tempting departure.”

Occasionally he attended the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM). At the 1966 ICM in Moscow, there was an arrangement for a small group of Americans to take a brief tour of mathematics education in the Soviet Union. Because he was involved in various mathematics education activities he was invited to be in this group. The head of the team was Professor Bruce Vogeli of Teachers College, who was a specialist of mathematics education in Russia. During this conference he and Professor Vogeli became acquainted and in the following years Professor Vogeli invited him to teach a course as a guest lecturer on the applications of mathematics.

He retired from industry in 1986 after 35 years of service. In the fall of 1987 he became a visiting professor at TC and has remained an integral part of the faculty for over 25 years. Dr. Pollak often recites to students in the mathematics education program, most of whom are practicing teachers, “I will be glad to try to teach you mathematics, if you’ll try to teach me how to teach.” Over the years Professor Pollak has taught several introductory graduate courses in a variety of mathematical topics: real variables, complex variables, dynamical systems, combinatorics, graph theory, applications of mathematics in engineering and the physical sciences (primarily information theory and coding), applications of mathematics in social sciences, which are problems of social choice voting and apportionment. The content of his courses include a discussion about issues related to the teaching of that subject and to connect topics in that course to the mathematics learned and taught in undergraduate and secondary mathematics. “We take the time to reflect on the topics the graduate students will be teaching at the undergraduate and secondary levels.”

While at Bell Labs, mathematical modeling was an important and interesting part of his work. Professor Pollak describes mathematical modeling as “using mathematics to help understand things in other fields.” With the release of the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics (CCSMS) three years ago, modeling became a central focus of mathematics education. Since then there has been an increased interest in mathematics educators wanting to engage in mathematical modeling, although there is an instance of modeling in university mathematics and secondary schooling prior to the release of CCSSM. While modeling is a hot topic now, Dr. Pollak’s interests extend to the teaching of many topics in mathematics.

Recently Professor Pollak wrote a chapter on the psychology of mathematics, focusing on the relationship between pure mathematics, applications of mathematics and modeling, and the teaching of mathematics. He also gave an address on this topic at the International Conference on the Teaching of Mathematics and its Applications, held in Brazil this past summer. He regularly publishes a publication of in the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications, Inc., (COMAP) on mathematics or applications of mathematics that he particularly enjoys; over twenty individual articles have been published.

Professor Pollak has been a dedicated member of several professional organizations: the American Mathematical Society (AMS), an organization for mathematics research, for over 60 years; the Mathematical Association of America (MAA), which primarily focuses on undergraduate teaching for over 50 years; and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) also for over 50 years.

In addition to his contributions to research in mathematics and mathematics education, Dr. Pollak finds great interest in collecting full stamp covers and is an honorary member of the stamp club in Austria and England. He also finds time to enjoy hiking, opera, and classical music.



By Deiana Jackson, Graduate Student, Mathematics Education PhD

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