“Don’t mind the mess,” she says.
Sarah Wolff is packing up her office in Olin Hall, getting ready for her sabbatical. The associate professor of mathematics is headed to Sol Plaatje University in South Africa as a 2022-2023 Fulbright Scholar, where she will help develop math curricula and teach students at the university. She’ll also tutor local high school students in math.
As Wolff connects with Sol Plaatje faculty to develop curricula and co-teach courses, she expects to learn from her students and colleagues. She hopes “it transforms some of the things I do in my own classroom. I’ll have a lot of learning and adapting to do, and I want to stay open-minded.”
She intends to bring fresh ideas back to Denison to share with her fellow faculty. And in the long term, she plans to pair students in her lower-level classes with Sol Plaatje students on shared activities that “engage students, provide support, and help build confidence for students in both places.”
Everyone is capable of doing math
“I think math gives such a great playground to challenge yourself and work through that challenge.”
“I tell my students all the time the number one quality of a good mathematician is that they work hard — you don’t have to be a genius, you just have to put in the work,” Wolff says.
Math confidence is important because many think the subject is something you’re either good at or you’re not. Part of Wolff’s ambition is to help every student see they are capable of doing math, and her teaching philosophy is to challenge her students while giving them the tools they need to succeed.
“I think math gives such a great playground to challenge yourself and work through that challenge,” she says. “You have to force yourself to push through it and work with the people around you. When that light bulb moment comes, it’s so exciting.”
Teaching is her highest ambition
Wolff is passionate about a lot of things. She’s run five marathons, numerous half-marathons, two 50Ks, three 50-milers, and completed the HURT100 race in the mountains above Honolulu. Plus, as her students can attest, she really loves cats.
But she’s most passionate about teaching.
“I lived in Nicaragua right after I graduated college, and that really directed my trajectory toward this work,” she says.
During graduate school at Dartmouth, Wolff followed that calling to South Africa as a National Science Foundation Research and Innovation Fellow. In Pretoria, she developed math education materials for public schools. And she met Anne Maclean, who founded the Maths & Science Leadership Academy (MSLA), a nonprofit STEM education program for disadvantaged 8-12 graders, the organization where Wolff will tutor high school students during her Fulbright.
“MSLA has an amazing track record, with over 95% of their seniors earning acceptance to university each year,” Wolff says.
In the future, Wolff hopes to expand the work and build an MSLA-Sol Plaatje bridge program to help these students succeed. “My personal mission is to create mentoring opportunities for students in my local community, wherever I am, and beyond,” she says.