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Taking the Fear out of Math: Lander Professor Lauded for Helping Non-Math Pupils ‘Get It’

Lander University math professor Gina Dunn instructs a group of grade-school students during Duke Energy's Summer Institute Cyber Camp on campus. Dunn received the university's 2017 Distinguished Professor award for her outstanding teaching.

Every August, Lander University math professor Gina Dunn enters her classroom ready for an annual challenge: to teach math to students who cringe at the mere mention of 2 + 2.

But by the time autumn arrives, glum expressions have been replaced by raised eyebrows and an almost happy spirit of tackling quadratic equations, exponential and logarithmic functions, mathematics of finance, and elementary math for students wanting to become grade-school teachers.

Dunn's miraculous turnaround in her students' attitude comes not from endlessly explaining complicated problems or concepts, but by turning their mutual fear of mathematics into something akin to joy.

"In spite of how common math-anxiety is among students, Gina's classes seem to consistently adore her," said Dr. Lillian Craton, associate professor of English and director of Lander's Honors College. "Her warmth and approachability make math itself less intimidating."

For example, when Brionah Pride signed up in the fall of 2016 for Dunn's course Mathematics for Elementary Teachers, she was already counting the days when she would forever be free and clear of her ongoing "frustration with math."

"I just wanted to get it over with because it was a school requirement," said Pride, a senior Early Childhood Education major.

However, with every class, Pride saw more and more math language adding up, and sensed her frustration vanishing in ways she had never thought possible.

"Things that I had never understand about math since fourth grade suddenly made sense to me because of how professor Dunn taught them," she said. "My fear of math hasn't completely gone away, but her classes definitely helped me grow into thinking more critically, and helped prepare me to teach math to young students after I graduate."

Dunn's methods and outcomes led to her being named as Lander's 2017 Distinguished Professor.

She was nominated for the award by both the Department of Mathematics and Computing and was one of the at-large nominees selected by students.

"It's an amazing feeling when colleagues publicly recognize your classroom performance and your overall contribution to the Lander and Greenwood communities," said Dunn, who began teaching at Lander in 2002. "Each one of my students is important to me, and I always try to let them know that school is just the beginning of learning."

When asked what one constant she employs for every class, regardless of the size or level, Dunn smiled and said it is "reading eyebrows."

"My favorite part of teaching is when a furrowed brow relaxes and lifts in that ah-ha moment," she said. "So many students come to me with a hatred of math because they just don't 'get it.' It is my job to present math in a way that meets their needs as individual learners."

And in the coming year, as the next group of non-math majors agonize over matrix solutions, linear programming, and other forms of math they view as frustrating requirements, Dunn will be ready to see eyebrows furrow and fears disappear - fraction by quantum.

"For me, teaching is fun," she said. "I'm a teacher because that is what I was called to do, and it's a great feeling to help students in any major discover that they can learn math in all disciplines of study."