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.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.

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.



‘Teaching swept me off my feet’ Despite the challenges, Anneliese Schauerte – a recipient of UCT’s Distinguished Teacher Award for 2018 – says she’s right where she’s meant to be. 19 Jun 2019
‘No stupid questions’ in Distinguished Teacher’s classes Curiosity, responding to change, technology and empathy are what 2018 Distinguished Teacher Award recipient Jeff Murugan says make an excellent teacher. 19 Jun 2019


Discovering purpose and potential Trauma surgeon Professor Pradeep Navsaria, one of four 2017 Distinguished Teacher awardees, describes himself as ʻan accidental or incidental teacherʼ. 08 Jun 2018
Top teaching honour for celebrated surgeon Lead from the front, support from behind, says acclaimed teacher and spinal surgeon Professor Robert Dunn, who was recently honoured with a Distinguished Teacher Award. 08 Jun 2018
Distinguished physics teacher leaves his mark Relaxed, irreverent, interactive, engaging. That’s how physics lecturer Gregor Leigh describes his teaching style. Leigh is one of four new Distinguished Teacher awardees. 05 Jun 2018
Voting creativity and engagement into law Distinguished Teacher awardee Associate Professor Jacqueline Yeats didn’t plan to become a teacher, but almost 13 years later she wouldn’t have it any other way. 04 Jun 2018


Put students at the heart of pedagogy Distinguished Teacher Awardee Dr Janice McMillan's work is not discipline-specific; rather it's about transformative teaching and how we engage the wider world beyond the university. This community-based learning encourages students to think about themselves simultaneously as students, emerging professionals and active citizens. 30 Mar 2017
Number's up for scary statistics Senior lecturer Dr Miguel Lacerda teaches statistics with an artful combination of precision and creativity. 27 Mar 2017
Tax time made easier Associate Professor Ryan Kruger has taught on every finance course offered at an undergraduate level, which he says has allowed him an understanding of the development that students undergo over the course of their academic careers. 24 Mar 2017
Winfield teaches ethical accounting Associate Professor Jimmy Winfield, an accounting scholar at UCT, runs a course called Business Ethics which aims to open his students’ minds a little 24 Mar 2017
The formula to make maths fun Dr David Erwin’s philosophy of creating a comfortable classroom, keeping students focused, and developing the structures they need to succeed is visible in his teaching. 22 Mar 2017
Taking the shock out of teaching maths Dr Jonathan Shock, who convenes a dreaded first-year mathematics course, was one of six DTA awardees for 2016. 15 Mar 2017


'A good teacher? Someone who teaches to learn' Dr Joanne Hardman of the School of Education gives us a peek into her classroom and talks about her teaching style, what makes a good teacher and her five top tips for teachers 30 Nov 2015
'If learning is not engaging it is not happening' Associate Professor Jacqui Kew from the College of Accounting engages her students by asking questions in the classroom. 30 Nov 2015
Find the 'amazing' in all you study and teach Dr Azila (Tzili) Reisenberger, Head of Hebrew in the School of Languages and Literature, says that her classes are like communities and she's always on the lookout for that amazing bit of information to impart when she's teaching. 30 Nov 2015
Knowledge is not fixed in textbooks Dr Adam West of the Department of Biological Sciences says that a teacher’s job is to help students realise that the creation of scientific knowledge is on-going and dynamic, and that they have a role to play in that. 30 Nov 2015


Dr Spencer Wheaton – Senior Lecturer, Department of Physics Dr Spencer Wheaton creates multi-dimensional, active experiences for students by making connections with the real world and linking physics to their major subjects. 01 Dec 2014
Assoc Prof James Gain – Deputy Head of the Department of Computer Science Assoc Prof James Gain believes that it is important to create the type of environment where students are not afraid to ask questions. 01 Dec 2014
Prof Delawir Kahn – Head of the Department of Surgery For Prof Delawir Kahn, being a surgeon and being a teacher are intricately intertwined. 01 Dec 2014
Dr Linda Ronnie – Senior Lecturer, Graduate School of Business Dr Linda Ronnie believes that an eagerness to learn is vital to being a great teacher. 01 Dec 2014


Dr Helen Macdonald – Anthropology Dr Helen Macdonald's teaching portfolio and her students' and colleagues' comments all indicate clearly that she is as passionate about her teaching as she is about her discipline, anthropology. 09 Dec 2013
Dr Hedley Twidle – English language & literature Dr Hedley Twidle believes that teaching literature in English should be a fluid and evolving thing. 09 Dec 2013
Dr Ian-Malcolm Rijsdijk – Film and Media Studies Dr Ian-Malcolm Rijsdijk is described as an inspirational teacher of film studies, film production and screen-writing whose energy, enthusiasm, deep generosity and passion for cinema have captivated a generation of students. 09 Dec 2013
Paul Maughan – Accounting Paul Maughan’s teaching philosophy is underpinned by a fundamental insight: Ken Bain’s view that effective teaching results in deep learning that is best achieved through the disruption of existing mental models. 09 Dec 2013


Professor John Higgins – English Literature Professor John Higgins believes that what counts is the question of identity, in a view of teaching as process and not transmission. 12 Dec 2012
Dr Jeremy Wanderer – Department of Philosophy Dr Jeremy Wanderer believes that it is possible for academic life to be set up in a way that does not lead academics to experience a tension between teaching and research. 12 Dec 2012
Dr Zenda Woodman – Department of Molecular and Cell Biology Students working under the tutelage of Dr Zenda Woodman have remarked on her use of humour to create a safe environment for learning. 12 Dec 2012


Quartet of outstanding teachers féted On the 30th anniversary of UCT’s Distinguished Teacher Award (DTA), four recipients joined the ranks. 12 Dec 2011


Medical teachers grab 2010 awards Professor Roland Eastman and Professor Zephne van der Spuy, both of the Faculty of Health Sciences, have been named the recipients of UCT’s 2010 Distinguished Teacher Awards. 15 Dec 2010