Following Robert Ghrist

Receiving Penn Engineering’s S. Reid Warren, Jr. Award for exceptional teaching is a mark of distinction, but to receive the prize in one’s first year of teaching at Penn is—to employ an adjective often used to describe recipient Robert Ghrist—amazing. It is the undergraduates themselves who cast the votes, a fact that especially pleases Ghrist, the Andrea Mitchell University Professor in the Departments of Electrical and Systems Engineering and Mathematics, who accepted the Warren Award in 2009.

Ghrist was recruited in 2008 as one of the University’s Penn Integrates Knowledge (PIK) Professors and holds appointments in the School of Engineering and Applied Science (Electrical and Systems Engineering) and the School of Arts and Sciences (Mathematics). As an applied mathematician specializing in topology, the study of multidimensional abstract spaces and shapes, Ghrist develops and applies mathematical methods to solve engineering problems in robotics and sensor networks.

But above and beyond his eminent qualifications as an interdisciplinary researcher and scholar, Ghrist embraces the spirit of the PIK appointment as an opportunity to enhance communication and collaboration between the two schools. Importantly, he also brings to Penn a talent for inspiring awe and enthusiasm in the classroom. Comprehension, for the most part, seems to follow.

Literature as Life-changer

While some might see it as a gift, Ghrist understands teaching as his “calling” or “vocation,” in the true Latinate sense of the word. It must have come to him quite early—his first grade teacher told him she saw in him the makings of “an absent-minded professor.” As for leaning toward the engineering discipline early on, Ghrist reveals, “Legos were my friends.” It was a college literature course, however, that “absolutely changed [his] life.” He is passing the love along: the first two ‘settling down’ minutes of his engineering classes are spent reading from a favorite work.

As a lecturer he is as playful as he is thoughtful, and his ideas are transmitted with a contagious ease. It is no surprise that he is invited to speak and teach all over the world. His travel schedule was so rigorous over the summer of 2011—Utah, Zurich, Budapest, Ohio—that he described his “vacation” as “any time I was home.” The end of summer found him in Japan for a four-part lecture series; his plane touched down in Philadelphia just as the fall semester was about to begin.

Should you become curious about where in the world Robert Ghrist is and what in the world is on his mind, you can follow him on Twitter (@robertghrist). Here you will find life according to Ghrist in “one-forty or less,” as he describes this popular social media’s word limit. His aphoristic tweets range from cultural observations on the road to joyful culinary discoveries to lightning-quick reflections on the amusements of his four home-schooled children.

He also keeps his followers updated on his work-in-progress: Funny Little Calculus Text (FLCT). FLCT is, well, not even Ghrist is entirely sure. Perhaps it is the “calculus anti-text.” Whatever it is, it bears no similarity to the dense and weighty calculus book many lugged around campus. Ghrist is creating, instead, a calculus text that students will actually read. Written in his own unique, calligraphic hand on a Fujitsu tablet PC, FLCT is colorfully and whimsically peppered with pop culture cartoons, literary references, and the author’s humorous asides on the material. Ghrist designed the text to add depth and understanding to the students’ high school catalog of AP Calculus knowledge.

Setting Up Freshmen to Succeed

Teaching students just out of high school is Ghrist’s passion, and he enjoys bridging math and engineering. (He is presently working on reforming the calculus curriculum in “engineering language.”) As he explains it, freshmen do not yet know what they “can’t” do and he loves “setting them up for success.” He throws the difficult Taylor Series at them on their first day and watches them rise to the challenge. This measure of difficulty also serves to “toughen them up,” Ghrist believes, and helps prepare them to successfully and confidently meet life on life’s terms.

But what of those students who are struggling? It’s hard to believe, but Ghrist once found himself in difficulty with his coursework. He explains that, for years, math and engineering solutions came to him easily and intuitively, and intuition, he believes, is a “dangerous gift.” He remembers the panic he felt in his junior year at the University of Toledo, when he “hit a wall,” and became lost. The hard-won wisdom he gained has informed Ghrist’s empathy for students experiencing similarly confusing academic dilemmas, and he is able to lead them out of the labyrinth, urging them to build new skills and to approach problems inductively.

Beyond the world of the structures and representations known to the rest of us as mathematics, lie unknown and unnamed regions now being observed and mapped by Robert Ghrist. The discoveries of this intrepid explorer fascinate his students and edify his peers and, at the University of Pennsylvania, all consider themselves fortunate to have a part in his remarkable journey

View the article in Penn Engineering magazine "Following Robert Ghrist" by Patricia Hutchings.

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