By Steve Koppes
Photo by Jason Smith

A student named Ivan went to the blackboard one day to work a proof in Robin Walters’ honors calculus course. After Ivan had filled one of the board’s front panels, he pulled it up to continue writing on the panel behind.

That’s when he found a surprise.

“It’s Ivan’s birthday,” said the words that one of his classmates had written on the second panel. “Let’s sing happy birthday to him.”

It was a magical moment for the close-knit class, and for Walters, a lecturer in mathematics. It would be characteristic of his students to get together and say, “Let’s all write letters saying Robin should get this award.”

Walters considers it rather ironic that he should receive this award, given that he is a co-lecturer of the inquiry-based learning section of honors calculus.

Students lead the proof-based, mathematically rigorous IBL sections. Lecturers monitor the class, intervening only when necessary. Walters’ proudest days are those when he says almost nothing. “It’s teaching only in the very loosest sense,” he says.

For Walters, one of the most challenging aspects of working an IBL course is keeping quiet.

“You have to let the students learn on their own. You know what the answer should be. Your traditional role as a teacher would be to correct them when they say something incorrect, but you try to hold back and see if the students can work it out on their own,” Walters says.

Last year Walters gained instructional experience in upper-level undergraduate courses as a College Fellow, a requirement for all second-year mathematics graduate students. Originally assigned to a lower-level calculus course, he had heard good things from other teaching assistants of IBL sections. When he learned of the last-minute IBL opportunity, he quickly volunteered.

“I have the best students,” Walters says. “They’re very motivated. They do the lectures, and they do the corrections, and they do the discussions. They come to office hours and ask interesting questions. They’re a real pleasure to teach.”

Outside of his teaching responsibilities, Walters studies geometric representation theory with Victor Ginzburg, professor in mathematics. “The things I enjoy doing in life appear to be teaching and researching. Thank God there’s some profession where you get to do both of them,” Walters says.

Originally published on June 4, 2012.