“I want my students to think explicitly about the problem-solving process. That’s as important as getting the right answer,” says Paul E. Hand, an assistant professor of computational and applied mathematics (CAAM) at Rice University.
Hand has taught multivariable calculus to freshman at MIT, quantitative reasoning to juniors at New York University and probability to engineering students at The Cooper Union. Now he doubles as the lead instructor of STEM Communication for the Richard Tapia Center for Excellence and Equity’s Math-Science Scholars camp, and last summer taught Texas high-school students at Rice.
In that outreach capacity, Hand and his colleagues worked with 17 students, all of whom were female or from underrepresented minorities. They were, by far, the youngest population of learners in Hand’s experience.
“This year we hope to organize something much larger and more ambitious,” he said, “bringing more high-school STEM students to the Rice campus.”
Hand, 32, was born and raised in Corvallis, Ore. His mother, Kim Hummer, started teaching him algebra when he was eight. She works as a research scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Clonal Germplasm Repository, and recently discovered a new species of strawberry in the Cascade Mountains. His father owns an electronics store in Corvallis, and taught Paul programming when he was in the sixth grade.
“My father has a handy spirit, which was good training for me. I was interested very early in math and computers, and in all things quantitative,” said Hand, who created a water-quality data base for his middle school and was web designer for his high school.
He expected to study physics when he entered the California Institute of Technology, but changed majors and graduated in 2004 with a B.S. in applied and computational mathematics. From there Hand went to New York University, where he earned a Ph.D. in CAAM in 2009, and worked for an additional year as a postdoc in its medical school. While at NYU he taught mathematics to engineering students at The Cooper Union in New York City.
Hand followed that with three years as an applied mathematics instructor at MIT, and an overlapping three years as a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow. He joined the Rice faculty in 2014.
In grad school, Hand’s research focused on simulating the macroscale partial differential equations that govern the electrical behavior of cardiac muscle cells. Today he works on computer vision, compressed sensing and other problems of recovering signals from noisy data.
At the same time, Hand has developed a growing interest in teaching and educational psychology on both the theoretical and practical levels. He wrote a sort of education manifesto titled “Statement on Teaching and Learning,” in which he says: “For all my classes, I see myself as a coach: an expert, a motivator, and a diagnostician.”
“I got interested in the idea of preparing students for future learning,” Hand said. “It’s more than a matter of getting them to memorize formulas and other information. I like to give them objectives specific enough to guide their thinking but general enough that they can transfer what they learn to other contexts,” Hand said.
While teaching at MIT, Hand created the website LeadingLesson.com, which he describes as “math problems and solutions that explicitly show the thought process.” He calls his teaching tool a “hobby” but its aim is anything but trivial.
“The idea behind all of those problems is to actively build understanding on top of the students’ existing mental structures,” he said. “Nobody starts from scratch. It’s not a matter of me, as teacher, transmitting information. Rather, it’s based on an awareness of whether the students have the knowledge with which they can understand the content.”
The same goes for the high-school students heading for the Rice campus this summer. “We want them to know they can learn and that learning can be enjoyable and rewarding,” Hand said. “They can gain social capital by knowing things.”