Longtime Math Professor Recognized With Prestigious Award

Walla Walla University (WWU) math professor Tom Thompson received the Mathematical Association of America's (MAA) Section Award for Distinguished College or University Teaching of Mathematics in the Pacific Northwest in April. This also means his name will be considered for the same award at the national level.

Such recognition is quite significant. The MAA has approximately 20,000 members nationwide, including about 800 in the Northwest, spread throughout five U.S. states and five Canadian provinces.

"I have to say that I really am speechless," says Thompson, who has taught at WWU for 41 years. "It tells me that my administration, colleagues, and students believe that I am making an important contribution. I really don't know what to say, except 'thank you.'"

Thompson, who also gave the university's Distinguished Faculty Lecture in 2009 and received the Zapara teaching award in 1989, was nominated by Ken Wiggins, mathematics department chairman. Wiggins says, "Tom has had a lasting impact on our students for his caring attitude toward students, for his rigorous standards, and for the colorful methods that he uses to make learning fun."

Letters of recommendation were also sent in by a colleague, a university administrator, and a recent graduate — all former students of Thompson.

The award from the MAA "helps to put us on the map," Thompson says. "Today, Christian education is not always an easy sell, especially considering the costs. For someone at WWU to be chosen is significant. This is a high honor for the university."

The mathematics enthusiast and amateur astronomer also explains how the joy of being a teacher is not about receiving impressive awards, but rather in working with students.

"I really enjoy trying to hook students on a subject that many of them are required to take for another discipline," he says. "When you can toss out extra problems, some easy and some more challenging, and get students of a wide variety of abilities to latch onto them, it really doesn't get better than that!"

Thompson graduated from WWU and first began teaching in 1971, and later he received his doctorate from the University of California, Davis. Since then, he has made presentations around the world, including in Brazil and Poland. The book he published in 1984, From Error Correcting Codes Through Sphere Packing to Simple Groups, is now in its fifth printing, and his fundraising efforts were instrumental in acquiring the observatory on top of Kretschmar Hall.

Even though Thompson is now in his 41st year behind the lectern, he relishes each day like it is his first. "I tell my students that I'm so lucky," he says. "Walla Walla is my alma mater and, quite frankly, I never expected to be back here. I get to do that which seems to suit me exactly. I wake up in the morning and look forward with relish to what I am privileged to do that day — teach mathematics, maybe even change attitudes."

Featured in: June 2012