Two Veteran CSAM Professors Retire

Mary Lou West, Ken Wolff

Mary Lou West - Montclair State UniversityProfessor Mary Lou West of the Department of Mathematical Sciences has retired as of June 2012. She began her career at Montclair State College (as it was called at the time) in the fall of 1970, soon after earning her Ph.D. in Astrophysics from Columbia University. She has been an active and visible member of the campus community as an enthusiastic promoter of the sciences. Over the years, Dr. West has mentored over 60 undergraduate students on their independent study research projects and was the coordinator of the physics and astronomy clubs. In outreach efforts, she was co-director (with Frank Kelland from Earth and Environmental Studies) of a training course for elementary and middle school teachers in the mid-80’s called "The Earth and Other Planets: Their Weather and Surfaces," funded by the New Jersey Department of Higher Education, and principal investigator of NASA’s IDEAS (Initiative to Develop Education through Astronomy and Space Science) grant “It’s All in Motion” with Charles Liu and Kevin Conod in the late 90’s. In 1994, she was the organizer of “The Best Astronomy Day in the USA.” On campus, a visible aspect of her work can be appreciated near Sprague Library where the sculpture “Ophiuchus”, produced in collaboration with sculptor MacAdams in 1998, stands.

For the past five years, Dr. West has been co-director of the $2.8 million NSF-funded GK12 program at MSU, which involves work with CSAM graduate students and local middle school students and teachers. Though her retirement will be noticed by all in CSAM, she has assured us that she will arrange to have the popular Public Telescope Night in front of Richardson Hall continued. I recently had a chance to sit down to chat with her.

MM: What have been some of the highlights of your career?
MLW: Having the concentration in Astronomy within the Physics major approved. Also, I have particularly enjoyed working with enthusiastic physics students, many of whom have continued on to graduate school in physics or astronomy. In fact, one is returning today, to give a seminar to our current students. I especially enjoyed them on projects that involved experimentation and mathematical modeling. I will miss interacting with these very promising students.

MM: How did you become interested in astronomy and physics?
MLW: I read a lot of science fiction books in middle school. I enjoyed considering the “what if” questions. When I was a child, I would often experiment with kitchen chemistry and enjoyed taking apart clocks just to put them back together. I never thought that I could go into science because back then, girls didn’t do science. Math, however, was more accessible to girls, so I went into mathematics, which I also loved. In my sophomore year of college, I asked a mathematics professor what good the mathematics we were studying was. He immediately pointed me to the physics department, so I became a double major. I became fascinated with astronomy during my senior year of college when I took my first astronomy course - magneto-hydrodynamics in the solar system. In graduate school, my interests in cosmic rays interacting with magnetic fields in space led to my studies of star motions in the galaxy.

MM: Who inspired you?
MLW: Marie Curie was an inspiration for many female students and scientists. As an undergraduate, I was usually the only female student in the science classes. This changed in graduate school, where often there were two or three of us. So, it was inspirational to see how much Marie Curie had accomplished. Ian Axford and Ken Greisen, my undergraduate mentors, were also inspirational figures for me.

MM: If you could study anything, what would it be?
MLW: Meteorites, to find out about the earliest days of the solar system, four and a half billion years ago. There is nothing else you can hold in your hand that is anywhere near that old. Black holes are also fascinating and mysterious. They are the engines of quasars and affect their environment in powerful non-linear ways. I’ve started these projects with some students, so I’d like to continue it.

MM: What else will you pursue upon retirement?
MLW: I would like to play with my grandchildren and hike and quilt more. I want to write about demos and PER (physics education research) and continue with AAPT (American Association of Physics Teachers). I will definitely miss my interactions with good students but will not miss grading lab reports!

Ken Wolff - Montclair State UniversityKen Wolff, professor of mathematics, has retired as of June 2012 from MSU, his alma mater. Prior to receiving his BS from MSU in 1963, his undergraduate advisor Tony Pettofrezzo encouraged him to seek graduate degrees and then to come back to teach at MSU, because it’s “a great place to start a career.” Well, here we are 45 years later, looking back on a career that began as a mathematics teacher at Ridgewood High School and included positions as associate chair of the MSU mathematics department, chair, interim dean of CSAM and member of the doctoral faculty.

Professor Wolff is happy he stayed at MSU. As you can imagine, he has taught many courses over the years, but his favorite course to teach was linear algebra. He especially enjoyed the blend of procedures, theory, and applications that are intrinsic to the subject. As technology became an increasingly integral part of mathematics education, he and Dr. John Stevens received an $88,750 NJ DHE High Tech grant in 1987 for hardware and software to introduce the use of computer algebra systems (CAS) software into the teaching of Linear Algebra and Differential Equations. This provided the groundwork for further funding of $25,000 for a NSF ILI grant to support the use of CAS in the teaching of calculus. Together with secondary school colleagues from the Wayne school district, Ken obtained $167,000 in external funding from a variety of sources that brought MSU, in the 1990’s, to the forefront of institutions that provided training on the use of graphing calculators to support the teaching and learning of mathematics. During the same time period, as part of a cooperative effort with Rutgers University, he was the senior MSU faculty member for the $150,000 NSF Discrete Mathematics in the Middle Grades Leadership Program.

In the late 1990’s Ken was a principal contributor to and a project manager for the $2.5 million Middle Grade Mathematics Science Teacher Education Project (MGM-STEP), a High-Tech Workforce Excellence Grant funded by the NJ Department of Higher Education. This project led to the development of the middle grades certificate program, which in turn led to the middle grades MA program, a popular program for local middle school teachers. Dr. Wolff looks back on the middle school programs as having opened his eyes to opportunities and the need for delivering more content and pedagogical content knowledge to middle school math teachers.

In the early 2000’s, Dr. Wolff, was instrumental in developing the Ed.D. in Pedagogy, MSU’s first doctoral program (with concentrations in Mathematics Education and the Philosophy for Children), with colleague Drs. Anthony Piccolino and Evan Maletsky, the faculty in the Department of Mathematical Sciences and the College of Education and Human Services as well as by college and university administrators. Ken has advised numerous students on their dissertations, another experience he reflects upon fondly.

More recently, Dr. Wolff has been co-director of the NSF-funded GK12 program, a 5-year $2.8 million project, another highlight of his career. He found it interesting, challenging, and rewarding, with the effort leading to great opportunities for CSAM graduate students, local middle school teachers, middle school students and project staff.

His work over the years has also led to recognition outside of MSU. In 2003, he was awarded the Outstanding Mathematics Educator award from the Association of Mathematics Teachers of New Jersey. He served as president of that organization in 1981-82 and was the 1993 Conference co-Chair for the 6th International Conference on Technology in Collegiate Mathematics. Earlier in his career he co-authored several textbooks. He has continued to present at numerous local, national, and international venues and has published papers in professional journals. He continues to be a reviewer for NCTM publications and has been a member of several NSF review panels.

As he looks back, he appreciates the variety of experiences he has had as a full-time faculty member, department chair and interim dean. Through these various roles, he was able to see three different aspects of university life. Upon retirement, Professor Wolff looks forward to additional travel, hiking, canoeing and boating, photography and spending more time with his grandchildren.