Todd Lee, a longtime mathematics faculty member renowned for his infectious enthusiasm both inside and outside the classroom, is the 2010 recipient of the Daniels-Danieley Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Lee, associate professor of mathematics, is the 38th Elon faculty member to receive the award, established by President Emeritus J. Earl Danieley ’46 and his wife, Verona Daniels Danieley, in honor of their parents.
Lee joined the Elon faculty in 1995 after completing his graduate work at Texas Tech University. He’d already been honored for his innovative approach to teaching, receiving Texas Tech’s Mathematics Graduate Student Teaching Award in 1994. He brought a gregarious personality considered rare among typical mathematics faculty.
“When we hired Todd, we knew that we were hiring someone who was different,” say his mathematics colleagues. “Todd’s constant and enthusiastic efforts have helped create a pride in the work we do and excitement we feel about our discipline.”
Lee, who serves as director of the Mathematics and Natural Sciences Fellows division of the Elon College Fellows, teaches a number of courses for interdisciplinary audiences in addition to advanced mathematics courses. These courses range from general studies requirements to prerequisites for several majors. A former student recalls taking one of Lee’s linear algebra courses, which enrolled 10 students, half of whom were non-math majors.
“With economists and engineers in the class, there’s a call for real-world applications of mathematics,” says the student, who added that Lee had no trouble adjusting the course components to fit his students’ needs. “This approach was greatly beneficial for non-math majors, but it also gave math majors a deep understanding of the applicability of linear algebra.”
For another former student, it’s Lee’s focus on the process of mathematics as well as the answer to a problem that proves most beneficial.
“He never tells you if you are right or wrong without showing him proof you are sure of your answer,” says the student. “It’s never a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but also a ‘why,’ which makes all the difference.”
Lee’s mentorship of students – and colleagues – doesn’t stop at the classroom door. A fixture of his department’s weekly Math Teas, he engages students and faculty in conversations about their courses and research, as well as casual chats about music, movies, video games and more. He’s cultivated a culture of “math love,” as his colleagues call it, and in return, students and faculty have designated him a “math god.”
A strong proponent of undergraduate research, Lee has mentored more than 30 students in their projects and encouraged countless more to submit their work to conferences. In the past year alone, he’s served as committee chair or co-chair for four projects.
“Todd has a knack for identifying our best and brightest and cajoling them into performing beyond their own expectations,” say colleagues in the mathematics department. “He doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer when asking students to go to conferences.”
Lee, who won the Elon College Excellence in Teaching Award in 2007, previously worked with students as faculty co-adviser for the Interdisciplinary Mathematical Contest in Modeling from 1999 to 2003 and the student chapter of the Mathematical Association of America from 1997 to 2002. Inside and outside the classroom, Lee has high expectations, colleagues say. But his door is always open to students, and they respond in kind.
“Todd cares about his students and wants them to succeed,” says a colleague outside the mathematics department. “His students know this, and they want to work hard for him.”
That admiration continues well after graduation, says one alumna.
“Dan Rather said, ‘The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called truth,’” she says. “For me, Dr. Lee was that teacher, and to this day, I don’t think that I could ever thank him enough.”