Math Professor Vesta Coufal Earns Prestigious Teaching Award

4/13/2016

SPOKANE, Wash. – The Pacific Northwest Region of the Mathematical Association of America will present Vesta Coufal, associate professor of mathematics at Gonzaga University, with its 2016 Award for Distinguished College or University Mathematics Teaching at its annual meeting Saturday, April 2 in Corvallis, Oregon.

“It’s a big award for us because we don’t have a lot of opportunities in mathematics to get recognition in this kind of way,” said Shannon Overbay, professor and chair of the mathematics department. “Vesta has been outstanding in the teaching realm.”

Overbay, who led Coufal’s nomination for the award, said Coufal has made a significant impact on the math department with her innovative teaching methods. Coufal started the Math Teaching Circle in which faculty can discuss lesson plans and other ideas for the classroom. The program has helped faculty share ideas, questions, and concerns.

The MAA region includes 145 schools in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and Western Canada. The annual award honors a professor who exhibits innovation and excellence in the classroom and has been influential in the larger math community. Coufal is the first Gonzaga professor to receive the award.

The MAA aims to make math accessible to undergraduate students. It is the largest professional society with a mission “to advance the mathematical sciences, especially at the collegiate level.” Overseeing 29 regional sections, the organization implements extensive programs, meetings, and publications and more than 100 national committees.

Steven Beres, a junior electric engineering major, has taken one class with Coufal and is a member of her research team. He was one of the students who nominated Coufal for the honor.

“Her passion isn’t so much for the research I see as getting the students to do the research,” says Beres. “She’s a fantastic teacher, I really, really loved her class and so has everyone I’ve talked to.”

In her research group, Coufal takes a different approach to student participation. After students conduct research they also contribute to writing an article on the results. While it takes more time to help students work through the writing process, Coufal says it’s worth it because the students gain skills and learn more.

“I mean the research is fantastic, but the best part is being able to do it with students and help their growth and see them come to results and find their own path through the material,” she says. “That’s what’s fun.”

Coufal gets excited every fall to return to the classroom and says she’ll keep teaching as long as that joy continues.

She grew up north of Spokane on a rural farm near Chewelah, Washington, and attended Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts for her bachelor’s degree in math. She earned her master’s in math from the University of California San Diego and her doctorate from the University of Notre Dame. She found her passion to teach as a faculty assistant at UCSD and taught at a community college for a few years after earning her master’s and before earning her doctorate. She taught for four years at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado before coming to Gonzaga.

As the regional winner, Coufal is in the running to win the national Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award, which honors up to three math teachers nationwide a year who are widely recognized as extraordinarily successful for their teaching effectiveness. Recipients of the Haimo Award also receive $1,000.

For more information, please contact Professor Coufal via email atcoufal@gonzaga.edu or at (509) 313-5508.