Public policy student receives mathematics fellowship that honors late math education leader Izaak Wirszup

Steve Koppes
Associate News DirectorUniversity Communications

Juliette Keeley, a fourth-year student in Public Policy Studies, is carrying on a proud tradition of service and scholarship as the 2010 Izaak Wirszup fellow. The annual fellowship – established to honor the late Professor Wirszup and his tireless work as a national leader in mathematics education – recognizes a distinguished College student for outstanding work in improving mathematics in schools.

“The education of children in all fields is one of the most important things we do as a society,” said President Robert J. Zimmer. “Isaak’s innovative programs and approaches have created opportunities for millions of students around the country to experience mathematics in a dynamic and interesting fashion,” said Zimmer, who also is a Professor in Mathematics.

“To this day, his efforts have a profound effect on the way mathematics is taught in our schools.”

Keeley entered the College with the intention of studying physics, but she soon became interested in public service after tutoring and mentoring CPS students in the Neighborhood Schools Program. As a result, Keeley, a French-American who attended high school in France, switched her concentration to Public Policy Studies.

She began tutoring at Reavis Elementary School as a volunteer during her first year in the College. At Reavis, Keeley learned the value of giving focused attention to students who were struggling in school.

“I could hone in on their personal misunderstandings, improve their self-esteem, and make mathematics relevant to their experiences. While tutoring does not address the underlying problems that public education faces, I believe it has enabled me to help children who are in dire need of individualized attention,” she said.

Last year, Keeley tutored middle school students on the South and West sides through the University of Chicago Polk Bros. Foundation Program for Improvement of CPS Mathematics Teaching, a project that Wirszup brought to the University in 1999.

“Many of the disengaged students I taught felt that mathematics required learning recipe-like formulas that had no relation to their lives,” Keeley said. “To show students the practical applications of math, for example, I brought in slides of famous buildings and blueprints to calculate areas and volumes. With the Polk Bros. Foundation program, I can creatively enrich mathematics lessons.”

Keeley currently is doing research on an alternative high school program for non-violent offenders at the Cook County Jail.

“I worked there all summer, collecting information on young inmate participants in the High School Diploma Program, which offers online high school courses for credit,” Keeley explained. “Based on a study of the students’ academic history, results in online classes, and social surveys of participants and the jail staff, I am evaluating this new program’s social, political, and economic costs and benefits to both inmates and society.”

The 2010 Izaak Wirszup fellowship was announced at a luncheon Friday, Oct. 22, attended by members of the Wirszup family, including his widow, Pera Wirszup.

“Izaak was a historical figure in mathematics education,” said Robert Fefferman, Dean of the Physical Sciences Division and the Max Mason Distinguished Service Professor in Mathematics. Fefferman pointed out that Wirszup was a founder of the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project, which went on to became the nation’s largest university-based mathematics curriculum program for kindergarten through 12th-grade students. Today, millions of students study with materials produced by the project.

“He was influential in convincing Congress to take definitive action to improve science and mathematics education in the nation’s public schools,” Fefferman said. The interest Wirszup was able to generate in Washington for the problems of mathematics education helped lead to funding from the National Science Foundation for UCSMP.

The University of Chicago Polk Bros. Foundation Program for Improvement of CPS Mathematics Teaching, in which Fefferman teaches, prepares Chicago public school teachers to better teach mathematics through an open-ended approach intended to promote mathematical reasoning and avoid heavy reliance on math drills.

—William Harms