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CAS Names First Feld Family Professor

Robert Devaney makes fractals crackle, starting in high school

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Robert L. Devaney, with and without fractals. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

A mathematician might say that random chance (dumb luck to the rest of us) thrust Robert L. Devaney, a world-renowned scholar and professor of mathematics in the College of Arts & Sciences, into his role as high school math mentor. More than two decades ago, a colleague from the School of Education asked Devaney to add his name to a grant proposal for working with struggling Boston schools. The workload promised to entail just one or two talks to high school teachers.

A week after the grant was approved, the education colleague resigned, and Devaney found himself running the project.

“I was the only other faculty member listed on the grant,” says Devaney, who plunged into high school education and has been there ever since, a big factor in his being named yesterday as the first Feld Family Professor of Teaching Excellence at CAS.

One of three professorships endowed last year with $10 million from the Feld Family Foundation — the others are in the School of Management and the College of Communication — the appointment recognizes a faculty member “who has achieved the highest level of accomplishment in teaching and mentoring as well as in scholarship,” says Virginia Sapiro, dean of Arts & Sciences. Sapiro says Devaney was chosen in the spirit of the professorship, which “is to honor scholars who are great educators, people who teach.”

“For me, what is most important about this chair is that it highlights the fact that there is no conflict between being a great scholar and a great teacher,” she adds. “The loyalty shown by the Feld family to BU is affirming, and their magnanimous support provides us with an opportunity to further strengthen our scholarship and teaching.”

In 2003, Devaney was a recipient of a Metcalf Award for Teaching Excellence, one of the University’s highest teaching honors, and he was the 1996 BU Scholar/Teacher of the Year. Among his many national honors is the 2002 National Science Foundation Director’s Award for Distinguished Teaching Scholars.

BU President Robert A. Brown describes Devaney as a “truly gifted scholar and educator. It’s wonderful to have Bob Devaney as the inaugural holder of the Feld Family Professorship in the College of Arts & Sciences,” he says. “He sets a very high standard for all future holders of this prestigious position.”

Devaney, who was lecturing in Mexico when his appointment was announced at yesterday’s CAS faculty meeting, has organized BU’s Math Field Days for two decades, luring more than 1,000 New England high schoolers and their teachers to campus and other sites for a one-day immersion in the joys of math. He also speaks at many high schools, helping teachers design curricula and trying to imbue in students his passion for math.

Working with high schoolers and their teachers hasn’t always come with praise and professorships. “When I got involved with high school teachers in the late 1980s,” Devaney says, “there were absolutely no rewards for getting involved at that level.” From university-level colleagues, “I heard several times, ‘Oh, he’s working with high school teachers, therefore he’s not doing mathematics.’”

Devaney’s field of dynamical systems is the study, in his words, of “any process that moves or changes in time — e.g., chemical reactions, populations, motion of planets.”

“Our goal in this field is to predict where this motion will go,” says the new Feld Professor. “Unfortunately, many such processes are unpredictable; they vary chaotically.”

Faced with this annoying unpredictability, he and colleagues use fractals, irregular geometric shapes whose smaller parts approximate the mother shape.

On this abstract topic, Devaney has written, cowritten, edited, or delivered more than 100 papers, 13 books, and 1,400-plus lectures, the last task carrying him to every continent but Antarctica. (His Web page impishly solicits speaking offers from South Pole State.)

His expertise yields some interesting gigs: he was a consultant to the 2007 Kevin Spacey movie 21, which shot scenes at the Castle, and the “chaos consultant” for several productions of the Tom Stoppard play Arcadia, which weaves math, human relations, and the pondering of past and present.

Fractals have applications in computer science, biology, chemistry, and physics. More to the point, their kaleidoscopic appearance has become Devaney’s lasso for roping the attention of high school students to math. “I can show the kids beautiful fractal pictures,” on the computer, he says. “They say, ‘This isn’t mathematics!’”

Arlington High School math teacher John Bookston attended a summer institute at BU 20 years ago where Devaney explained how to teach chaos and fractals to high schoolers. Bookston uses what he learned whenever he teaches the topic. Recently, he says, the number of his students wanting to attend Math Field Days has outstripped the number of available slots. So he’s brought Mohammed to the mountain, persuading Devaney to lecture at his school in 2007 and last year.

“Professor Devaney has a special way of engaging students’ interest,” says Bookston. “He is a master teacher and a generous, warm human being.”

The Feld Family Foundation’s philanthropic efforts span higher education, the performing arts, and conservation of the endangered Asian elephant. Kenneth Feld (SMG’70) is chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, Disney on Ice, Feld Motor Sports, and Disney Live! He, Bonnie Feld (CAS’73), a member of the CAS Leadership Advisory Board, and their daughter Alana (COM’02) designated $7.5 million of the $10 million donation to endow the three professorships, each in a school that educated a Feld family member. 

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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