The
Math Evangelist
Professor Evans Afenya believes that math is a
tool, unappreciated and underutilized, but capable of changing lives.
He aims to spread that gospel to as many audiences as possible.
By Andrew Santella
Evans Afenya is, as usual, the only person smiling in math class.
We’re halfway through another session of roots and cosines,
and he’s at the front of the room, chalk in hand, grinning.
The rest of the people in the roomAfenya’s twenty studentsare
looking decidedly less upbeat, displaying the attitudes and expressions
one might think are more typical of a math classroom. Some are scribbling
equations in notebooks; some are scratching theirs heads in bewilderment.
Some are fidgeting, staring at the clock and silently imploring
it to move.
Afenya writes out another series of problems on the chalkboard,
and by the time he finishes, his piece of chalk is little more than
a nub. Now he steps away from the board to reveal the problems he
has written out. He turns to face his class and waits for solutions
to come pouring forward.
The room falls
silent. One hand begins to go up slowly, then is quickly withdrawn.
"Hello, anybody?" Afenya asks optimistically. "Hello?"
"Goodbye," one student shoots back dismissively.
Afenya’s
expression never changes.
If there is
one thing Afenya has learned in a lifetime devoted to math, it is
that not everyone shares his love for the subject. Afenya is a math
evangelist. He believes that math is a tool, unappreciated and underutilized,
but capable of changing lives. He aims to spread that gospel to
as many audiences as possible.
The students gathered in his classroom this afternoon make up one
of his favorite audiences. They are high school kids16 and 17
year oldsenrolled in the Elmhurst College Summer Math and Science
Academy, a sort of boot camp devoted to those academic subjects
that one academy student aptly describes as "the hard stuff."
The academy aims to give young women and minorities—the groups
that tend to be underrepresented in undergraduate math and science
courses—a running start on college work in those disciplines.
Afenya has directed the academy for each of its eleven years, and
he has come to anticipate the wailing and gnashing of teeth that
will accompany the first math test he gives his academy students.
"They have come to believe that they cannot do this work,"
Afenya explains. "They expect to fail. That’s what we’re
up against."
The professor says he encounters the same fear of math in some of
the undergraduates he teaches at Elmhurst—and even in the adult
academics weighed down by multiple degrees that he meets at professional
conferences. Besides directing the academy and teaching Elmhurst
students, Afenya has built an impressive body of research in the
ultracuttingedge field of biomathematicsthe use of mathematical
and statistical models to map biological processes, such as the
spread of cancers. His work puts Afenya in regular contact with
doctors and medical researchers, and he has noticed a surprising
parallel between their feelings about math and those of the 16yearolds
in his academy classrooms. Members of both groups, it seems, can
approach math with an apprehension verging on phobia.
"Even talking to scientists, the minute you say math, they
say, ‘Wait a minute,’" Afenya says. "Math has
been a headache for a whole lot of people. Unless they encountered
a teacher in grade school or high school who made it exciting, they
just want to be done with it."
When Afenya joined the Elmhurst faculty in 1992, it was his research
that impressed his new colleagues more than anything else. Biomathematics
was emerging as a hot new field, and Afenya had already begun making
inroads. "The kicker for us was that he was doing really firstrate
research," says Jon Johnson, the chair of the Department of
Mathematics, who was involved in hiring Afenya. "He was working
in an interesting area, and he had already established connections."
In the years since, even as his research has advanced impressively,
Afenya has been most visible on campus as a teacher. "Evans
is doing this really cuttingedge stuff with modeling cancer and
helping understand what cancer does, and he is also able to maintain
a great rapport with students in the classroom," says Paul
Arriola, an associate professor of biology at Elmhurst and the codirector
of the summer academy.
When Afenya talks about teaching math, he sounds less like a dispassionate
numbers cruncher than a kickass coach. For him, math is about taking
responsibility. "Students have these anxieties about math,
and so they do enough to get by, enough to satisfy the requirements,"
he says. "But I say, ‘Do you not want to be a full human
being? You will not always be able to run away from your problems
or adopt other people’s solutions. You must be ready to solve
problems in an original way. Math gives you the discipline to solve
problems.’"
It’s a pitch he has been making to academy students for more
than a decade. The academy aims to give high school students a short
but intense taste of college life. For two weeks, they live on campus
and take classes in math, biology, chemistry, computer science,
and physics, all taught by some twenty Elmhurst College professors
from half a dozen departments. On a typical day, students will spend
seven hours in classes, along with study sessions and time spent
on homework. The rigorous program has won endorsements from educators
and administrators at the Chicago Public Schools, which sent about
fortyfive students to the academy last summer, with support from
the Associated Colleges of Illinois. That influx helped make last
summer’s class of seventyfive students the largest yet at
the academy.
For some of the students, the experience is like being plunged into
a strange new world. Some have never before been away from home
by themselves. Most have never sat through twohourlong classes
in math or the sciences. For some students from impoverished neighborhoods
and dysfunctional schools, just spending two weeks on a leafy and
serene campus is a little disorienting.
"Some of these students come from desolate situations. They
deserve better than to sit around and think they have no future.
They shouldn’t have to take the path of least resistance,"
Afenya says. "But first they must realize that they can do
the work."
###
Back in the classroom, Afenya is still facing twenty or so high
school students who, it seems, would like to be done with math.
The problems Afenya scrawled on the board ten minutes ago remain
there, unsolved. He calls on a student named Dana to tackle one
of the problems, and after a confident start, she stumbles and stops.
Afenya prods her once more for a solution, and Dana snaps.
"Y’all making my head hurt," she says, in a way that
would be comical were it not for the panic in her voice. "I
quit!"
"No," Afenya says quietly, "you do not quit so easily."
He returns to the blackboard and starts again, walking his class
through the problem from the beginning.
Dana soon catches on, and before long she is helping to explain
the problem to a classmate.
Later, Afenya stops teaching when he notices that one of the students,
in violation of a class rule, does not have his math book with him.
When Afenya asks where the book is, the student blandly tells him
that he forgot it.
"Look, in college we do not forget books," Afenya tells
the student, as the rest of the class watches and listens. "You
must learn that before you go to college."
"I ain’t going to college," the student mutters.
"I have news for you," says Afenya. "You are going
to college. I will make sure of it. I know where you live, and when
the time comes, I will come and get you and make sure you go to
college."
The class breaks out in raucous laughter as they consider the unlikely
image of Afenya appearing at the student’s door to drag him
off to college.
"You ain’t coming to the ’hood!" shouts one
student from the back of the room.
Afenya smiles at the uproar, but something in his expression suggests
that he just might be capable of showing up one morning and dragging
students off to study math in college, one by one.
Afenya’s empathy for the mathanxious is all the more remarkable
because he seems to have been born immune from the condition. He
grew up in Accra, the capital of Ghana, where his father was the
chief accountant for a British firm and his mother owned a small
business.
"One became very interested in math," Afenya says of his
childhood, displaying his characteristic aversion to using the personal
pronoun. "All one had to do was take a problem, sit down with
a piece of paper and figure it out."
At the Mawuli School, a Britishstyle boarding academy, he finished
atop his class in a standard math exam. That helped earn him admission
to the University of Science and Technology, where he applied himself
to his studies and set his sights on a career in the national statistical
service.
Instead, Afenya found himself being drawn into the political life
on campus. Ghana at the time was ruled by military strongman Jerry
Rawlings, who had taken power after a series of coups had shredded
the nation’s constitution. The university was a hotbed of opposition
to the military regime. As Afenya completed his undergraduate studies,
launched his graduate work and began to teach, he found himself
invited to speak at political forums. "As a teacher you are
invited to make political statements," Afenya says. "I
had a lot of adrenaline. I began mounting platforms, speaking out."
Afenya soon noticed the state security police showing up at his
public appearances and trailing him. The implicit threat seemed
obvious enough. "One had to either leave or be quiet,"
he says matteroffactly.
Afenya had already begun making contact with professors at universities
abroad, seeking a place to continue his graduate studies. He had
family in the United States, and eventually found his way to the
University of Illinois at Chicago, where he continued his work in
mathematical biology. Taking residence in rented apartments not
far from UIC’s campus on the West Side, Afenya also undertook
an education in Americanstyle urban living. He weathered repeated
breakins and burglaries. Even more disturbing to him were his encounters
with the aimless young people he saw on neighborhood streets.
"These kids would be standing around, doing nothing, utterly
desolate," he recalls. "I could not understand why they
had to think this was the end of their world, the extent of their
possibilities."
While at UIC, Afenya began working in a minority engineering program
that, like the summer academy he later would launch at Elmhurst,
sought to groom minority students for fields they might consider
closed to them. At the same time, he was completing his Ph.D. thesis
(search for it under the title "Modeling Granulocytopoiesis,
Normal and Leukemic States"), a project that placed him squarely
in the midst of a rapidly growing field.
Researchers in recent years have increasingly turned to mathematical
models as a useful tool in understanding malignant diseases and
plotting treatments. Statistical models allow investigators to get
a better understanding of the biological processes involved in cancer
and other diseases, and to get it more quickly and cheaply than
would be possible if they relied on clinical results alone. The
biomathematics conferences where Afenya gives papers attract everyone
from biologists to theoretical mathematicians to pharmaceutical
researchers. (Just before last summer’s academy convened, he
was off to lecture in Trento, Italy, and Orlando, Florida.) All
are banking that the dizzying series of equations constructed by
mathematicians like Afenya might hold the keys to mapping and attacking
cancers.
It is hard to imagine a more compelling case for appreciating the
elegance and utility of mathematical systems. For a teacher like
Afenya, who sees it as his job to sell his students on the importance
of math, his own research just might be the best exhibit he could
put forward.
Afenya launched the summer academy in 1994, two years after he arrived
at Elmhurst. In the first season, ten students enrolled. As enrollment
grew, Afenya enlisted the help of Elmhurst undergraduates to serve
as chaperones to the high school students. The chaperones help the
new kids navigate the campus, make sure everyone gets to the dining
hall for breakfast, and provide homework help.
For the first time last summer, the academy offered an extra week
of "College Readiness" classes conducted by staffers from
the Associated Colleges of Illinois. On the first day of the classes,
the ACI’s Renee Tucker gathered the academy’s students
and told them they would be expected to act like responsible scholars
for the next three weeks. "You’re in college now,"
she declared.
Not every student was ready to accept the challenge. One group convinced
their chaperone to carry an appeal to Afenya to ease up on the homework.
The professor sent the chaperone back with a blunt message: "Deal
with it. This is what college is about."
It’s hard to know how much of Afenya’s message gets through,
especially to students who have to be reminded to take off their
headphones and remain seated in class. But Afenyano surpriseis
hopeful. He notes that a few academy graduates have gone on to enroll
at Elmhurst College. One has returned to work as a chaperone at
the academy.
"I believe just being here makes an impression on them,"
he says. "You go by the library at the end of the day and you
see them doing their homework there. Or you see them doing extra
work in the lab. If we reach only a few of them, we will have accomplished
something."
Later, in class, with just a few minutes left in the period, Afenya
returns to the chalkboard to scratch out a new set of problems for
his students to solve. Predictably, he is greeted with groans and
expressions of dismay. The teacher is nonplussed.
"These problems are invigorating," he says, even as he
continues to write. "They will make you happy."
The students look unconvinced, but Afenya keeps writing. Class is
not yet over.
