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Russ Rowlett: Quiet Champion of Mathematics Education

Photo of Russ Rowlett

Russ Rowlett

Russ Rowlett began his academic career as a mathematics professor, then made the transition to an educator who shared his love of mathematics with both teachers in training and those in the classroom who aspired to pass his enthusiasm for math on to their students.

After earning both a B.A. and a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Virginia, Rowlett taught at Princeton University and spent 13 years teaching mathematics at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville prior to leaving a tenured position to come to Chapel Hill in 1987 to direct the Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE). “At that time, there was a real sense of a crisis in teaching math and science in the public schools,” Rowlett says. “There was a great deal of concern about the need to better prepare teachers in these fields,” he says, noting that math and science education in the United States remains an area of concern for many educators today.

In addition to his work as director of CMSE, Rowlett has served as coordinator of the M.A.T. and M. Ed. Programs for experienced teachers, as well as being an adjunct professor in the Department of Mathematics at UNC. During his tenure at UNC, he supervised and supported the Mathematics and Science Education Network in the state. He also directed two major professional development projects funded by the National Science Foundation, one for middle school science teachers and one for middle school math teachers.

He authored a chapter entitled “Numbers and Symbols” in Science and Technical Writing: A Manual of Style, among other publications, and wrote an Internet dictionary of units of measurement which is widely used.

Over the years, Rowlett says he has focused on creating better math teachers through the implementation of two efforts: working with masters’ students and experienced teachers in professional development programs, and in the Pre-College program for students. “We can make better teachers through the masters’ and professional development programs, but teachers need continuing professional development to keep honing their skills,” Rowlett says. He firmly believes that professional development programs energize teachers, thus encouraging students to remain engaged with the material they are studying.

He recognizes the challenge of proving the link between continuing education for teachers and student achievement. “It’s not possible to really prove that a teacher’s professional development improves student performance,” Rowlett acknowledges. “One of the challenges in the field of education is that it is very hard to prove anything, because so many different factors are involved in student achievement.”

Rowlett’s dedication has earned the admiration of those who worked closely with him. “I worked with Dr. Rowlett for about 20 years as the program manager for professional development,” says Sherry Coble, program assistant at the School of Education. “He is a wonderful man and a great manager. We used to say that Dr. Rowlett was like Teddy Roosevelt; he speaks softly but he carries a big stick,” she says with a laugh. “We had almost no turnover in our department. Everyone was very loyal to Dr. Rowlett and eager to come to work every day. He has high standards, and he wants things to be right,” she says, “but he is a pleasure to work with.”

In addition to being the first full-time director of CMSE, which was a fledgling organization when he arrived, Rowlett also began the Pre-College program in 1988. The program focuses on improving math and science skills for students in grades 6 through 12. Though it is open to any North Carolina public school students in these grades, it has historically focused on young women and minority students, who tend to do less well in math and science courses in middle and high school. “The Pre-College program has focused on changing the peer culture that students are in,” Rowlett says. “What we try to do through our work is to change attitudes and expectations so that these students are able to be more confident and say that ‘I will do well in math and science,’ instead of believing that they cannot be successful. Working with the Pre-College program has been the most fulfilling part of my career here,” Rowlett says. “It is the work that I am most proud of.”

Rowlett is a man respected by his former students and his peers. “Russ has been a tremendous supervisor, mentor and friend during my professional life as a doctoral student and then as a professor,” says Paul Shotsberger, now dean of the School of Education at Southern Wesleyan University in Central, South Carolina. “He is one of the most collaborative people I know in academics.  There is no presumption on his part - I don't think he would know how to "put on airs" if he was told to. He is generous with his time and considerable expertise, yet always humble regarding his own contribution. For him, it is all about the team and about educating students.”

Pat Shane, who worked alongside Rowlett at CSME for almost 20 years and also retires this year, says of him, “When he speaks, people listen because he has something profound to say. He trusts people to do their jobs and doesn't interfere. However, if one ever needs assistance, he is the first one there who will go to bat for you,” she adds. “He's also very open to new ideas. If you have an idea and go to him with a plan for something new, he listens and then says, ‘Let's figure out how we can make that happen.’ His strength, wisdom and competence will be sorely missed.”

In retirement, Rowlett looks forward to spending time at the North Carolina coast. “My wife, Ginny, and I enjoy going to Nags Head on the Outer Banks and also to the beaches at Oak Island,” he says. “We like to explore those areas and plan to continue to do so.” Their son, Michael, carries on the family tradition of academics as an assistant professor of clarinet and music literature at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. “We’ll undoubtedly spend some time visiting there as well,” he says.

Though retiring, Rowlett doesn’t plan to give up teaching entirely. He has taught math courses for Carolina Courses Online for many years, and says he expects to continue. While he will miss his students in the classroom, he says he will miss his colleagues the most. “I work with some of my former students here, and others have gone on to become professors and at least one dean of another school,” Rowlett says. “I have worked with some colleagues in a very close way, and I will miss those relationships.”