The formula to make maths fun

22 March 2017 | Story Chido Mbambe. Photos Robyn Walker.
​​​​​​​Dr David Erwin is renowned for developing conceptual frameworks that enable an understanding of mathematics.
​​​​​​​Dr David Erwin is renowned for developing conceptual frameworks that enable an understanding of mathematics.

The Distinguished Teacher Award (DTA) recognises excellent teaching and is the highest accolade awarded to teaching staff within the university.

Dr David Erwin's research interests are in classical and algebraic graph theory. His philosophy of creating a comfortable classroom, keeping students focused, and developing the structures they need to succeed is visible in his teaching. Students speak highly of his ability to entertain while being completely rigorous in all his mathematical statements. Erwin spoke to Chido Mbambe from UCT's newsroom.

Why did you become a teacher?

I'm not a teacher. I'm an academic. I love teaching, but it's only one part of what I do.

What do you love most about UCT?

The view from my office window, and the students. UCT has a lot of fantastic students who are really interested in what they're doing. It's the only university I've worked at where I regularly overhear snatches of serious conversation about maths and philosophy and economics and human rights, as opposed to just sports and relationships and what's on TV.

Please provide a brief synopsis of your academic journey.

I started a BSc at the University of Natal with the idea of becoming a physicist. I'd found maths in high school boring and had never considered it as a possible career. However, in my first semester of calculus, I was fortunate to be lectured by Professor Henda Swart, an inspirational teacher and distinguished researcher who sadly passed away last year. By the time I finished my honours in physics, I'd decided I was more interested in maths than physics, so I did an MSc with Professor Swart in graph theory. That was followed by 18 months of tutoring at UCT before I went to Kalamazoo, Michigan, to do a PhD in mathematics at Western Michigan University. I had a three-year post doc at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, before accepting a position at UKZN as a lecturer. I came to UCT in January 2012.

What do you believe makes a good teacher?

An understanding of the central role that caffeine plays in mathematics. Oh, and a willingness to learn from experience and to change what isn't working. An example, when I first started lecturing at Western Michigan, I would get a lot of comments saying that I spoke too fast. I took the comments seriously and worked on slowing down. Teaching evaluations give us a great tool to learn from our teaching although they're controversial.

The formula to make maths funIt's unusual to have two awardees in one year from the same department. Dr Jonathan Shock and Dr David Erwin are both from the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics.

How would you describe your teaching style?

Informal and dynamic. I want students to feel comfortable asking and answering questions, and this is the best way I've found to facilitate that. I prefer to walk into the lecture theatre with a rough outline of what I want to cover and then wing it, because I've found it's easier to hold the class's attention that way. I also use a tablet because then I'm facing the class rather than standing at the blackboard with my back to them. And I joke around in class, both because I have an overactive sense of humour and because it breaks the 'flow', which helps keep the students' attention.

What do you love most about teaching?

My enjoyment is a function of the students in the class. No matter how interesting the maths is, if you get a bunch of students who, six weeks into the semester, are still sitting there blank-eyed, unresponsive, playing with their cellphones, then it's really the worst thing in the world. On the other hand, if you have a class that engages with you and asks questions and is interested in what you're teaching, then even the most routine stuff that you've taught 20 times before is great fun to teach.

What is the importance of this kind of recognition?

The fact that UCT has for so many years had a DTA affirms the important and central role that teaching plays at the institution. In the same vein, I hope that sometime soon the institution will offer our academic teachers, many of whom are tireless and gifted academics, the opportunity to rise to the rank of professor.

What do your academic responsibilities entail besides research?

I'm one of three deputy heads in Mathematics and Applied Mathematics. I'm also on a number of departmental, faculty and university committees, including Senate as an elected representative of non-professorial staff. So I spend a substantial portion of my time on admin.

What 'floats your boat' in teaching?

I enjoy introducing students to some of the really exciting ideas and discoveries in maths. Especially the Steinitz Replacement Theorem. Last year, some of my second-year linear algebra students made an edible version of the Steinitz Replacement Theorem, but I didn't get to taste it, so I don't know how it turned out.

What do you like doing off duty?

My principal hobby is music.

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Distinguished Teacher Award


The Distinguished Teacher Award is the highest accolade awarded to teaching staff at all levels within the university. Through the award, the University of Cape Town acknowledges the primary place of teaching and learning in the university’s work.

Read more about the award.