2012 Distinguished College or University Teaching of Mathematics
Tom Thompson, Walla Walla University

It is a proud moment in the life of any professional when colleagues pause to recognize your work and honor you with a prestigious award. Tom Thompson, longtime professor of mathematics at Walla Walla University, recently received the Mathematical Association of America’s Section Award for Distinguished College or University Teaching of Mathematics in the Pacific Northwest.

Such recognition is quite significant; the MAA has approximately 20,000 members nationwide, including about 800 in the Northwest, spread throughout five U.S. states and five Canadian provinces. In 2012, the Pacific Northwest sectional meeting was held at the University of Portland in Oregon, where Professor Thompson was presented with a certificate from the MAA.

“I have to say that I really am speechless,” Thompson said. “It tells me that my administration, colleagues, and students believe that I am making an important contribution. I really don’t know what to say, except ‘thank you.’ I know that I will need to work harder to make sure that their trust was not misplaced.&rdqup;

Thompson, who was the WWU Distinguished Faculty Lecturer in 2009, was nominated by Professor Ken Wiggins, chair of the mathematics department. Along with Wiggins’s initial nomination and supporting documentation, further letters of recommendation were sent in by a colleague, a university administrator, and re- cent graduate. Interestingly, all of these individuals were also former students of Thompson.

The award from the MAA “helps to put us on the map,” Thompson said. “Today, Christian education is not always an easy sell, especially considering the costs. For someone at WWU to be chosen is significant. This is a high honor for the university.”

The mathematics enthusiast and amateur astronomer also explained how the joy of being a teacher is not about receiving impressive awards, but rather in working with students. “I really enjoy trying to hook students on a subject that many of them are required to take for another discipline,” he began. “When you can toss out extra problems, some easy, and some more challenging, and get students of a wide variety of abilities to latch onto them, it really doesn’t get better than that!”

Thompson graduated from WWU and first began teaching in 1971, and later he received his doctorate from the University of California, Davis. Since then, he has made presentations around the world, including in Brazil and Poland. The book he published in 1984, From Error Correcting Codes Through Sphere Packing to Simple Groups, is now in its fifth printing with MAA, and his fundraising efforts were instrumental in acquiring the observatory on top of Kretschmar Hall.

Amazingly, Thompson is now in his 41st year behind the lectern, but he relishes each day like it is his first on the job. “I tell my students that I am so lucky,” he said. “Walla Walla is my alma mater and, quite frankly, I never expected to be back here. I get to do that which seems to suit me exactly. I wake up in the morning and look forward with relish to what I am privileged to do that day — teach mathematics, maybe even change attitudes.”

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