Stevens Alumnus, Now College Professor, Visits K-12 Students to Instill a Love of Math

4/18/2013

Dr. Mike Ferrara ’00 has a big presence in a room and an even bigger voice.

His voice, booming and attention-getting now, was just beginning to show its strength during his performing days with the Stevens Glee Club as a tenor. Even now, 13 years after receiving his B.S. in mathematics, the voice remains deep but warm. And Ferrara still wears a full beard and mustache, something he first started wearing while an undergraduate, although now some facial hair is gray.

But it’s his voice that makes you take notice, especially in a classroom. Ferrara captures your attention with his resounding voice and active arms as he walks around a room, trying to inspire anyone with one of his passions in life: math. This current assistant professor of mathematical and statistical sciences at the University of Colorado Denver draws comparison between his current job and with his acting performances in the Stevens Dramatic Society.

“I’m really a teacher flexing his acting muscles. This is really a vehicle for my performance,’’ he says. “I’m big, loud and energetic by nature.’’

This one-time Stevens actor fondly recalls his days in the SDS, noting that an actor and a teacher showcase a similar skill set, such as voice projecting, remembering your lines, holding an audience, and maybe most importantly, knowing when to ham it up for the audience.

Ferrara, who earned his Ph.D. from Emory University in 2005, comes from a family of teachers. His mother teaches middle school in Dumont, N.J., and his sister teaches high school in Fair Lawn, N.J. So it was no surprise when Ferrara entered the “family business’’ in 2000, when he taught MA 112 Matrix Algebra with Computers at Stevens the summer after his graduation. Later, he taught at the University of Akron (Ohio) before accepting his current position at UC Denver in 2009.

But these days, Ferrara is taking his teaching career one step further. Since 2009, Ferrara and a team of dedicated volunteers have been going into K-12 classrooms in the Denver area to present “Math on My Mind,’’ a program designed to foster a love of math for all students.  The sessions have really one goal: to make math impactful and enjoyable. Ferrara feels strongly about the importance of getting kids of all ages interested in math.

“I wanted to excite the students. We try to make it fun, not frivolous,’’ he says.

The program has no funding. Ferrara pays for supplies and materials himself and organizes the schedule on his own time. It is also 100 percent volunteer-based, as he works with other faculty members and doctoral students.

“Right now, we’re centered on the Denver area and we’ve traveled as far as one hour away. At first we started with the middle school kids, but just last week, we were in a third-grade classroom,’’ he said during an interview last fall.

He admits he was apprehensive at first with such a young audience. “But they are an excitable bunch and we can certainly bring all lessons to their level,’’ he says.

Ferrara and his team show examples of real-world experience with math when conducting his mini-lessons, which are tailored to work with the classroom lesson already being taught. Some of his most popular lessons involve fractals, unusual probability games and network science. “All age groups ask, ‘What can I do with a math degree? I don’t want to teach math,’ they tell me,’’ he says, mimicking a grade-school voice. “But I point out that math is involved with statistics, and computers use math, and that gets their attention because all of the ages know about a computer.’’

Besides the SDS and Glee Club, Ferrara belonged to the Student Government Association and Theta Alpha Phi theater honor society while a student at Stevens.  But he quickly credits three Stevens math professors with helping shape his future: Dr. Charlie Suffel, Dr. Roger Pinkham and Dr. Doug Bauer ’72, Ph.D. ’78. He says that while a student, Bauer had a big effect on his future with one simple act. One day, after class, Bauer loaned Ferrara a book on graph theory and told him to return a week later to discuss it. It was Ferrara’s first real book on the subject. These weekly, private discussions continued all semester.

“He didn’t have to do that. I wasn’t a standout student in his class, but I guess he saw something in me and allowed me to have this experience out of the goodness of his heart. I never forgot that,’’ Ferrara says, adding that he has modeled his own mentorship of UC Denver students after the one he had with Bauer. And Ferrara admits he catches himself saying things to his students that Pinkham said to him at Stevens, further proof of how Stevens professors influenced him.

Since its inception, MOMM has grown each year and in 2011, Ferrara says MOMM conducted 98 classroom sessions, teaching to 2,300 students across the grade levels.

So what’s next for MOMM? In 10 years, Ferrara hopes to do more, with perhaps a graduate teaching assistant visiting the schools and planning the lessons. “I think that by getting out into the community, you get a real feel of where your students are coming from and that can only help a teacher,’’ he says.