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Alumni Association Excellence in Public Service Award 2008

By Suki Casanave
February 4, 2009

Karen J. Graham
Karen J. Graham, professor of mathematics, College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, UNH Photo Services, Lisa Nugent photo

Karen Graham is a mathematician who believes in getting out in the field—and getting dirty while you're at it. As director of UNH's Joan and James Leitzel Center for Mathematics, Science, and Engineering Education, Graham and her colleagues have taken teachers tramping through the woods and cruising on Great Bay. She's even sent them to the top of Mt. Washington as part of her quest to make mathematics and science education more dramatic, more relevant and, well, more fun.

"Many people—including some teachers and most students—see mathematics as dull memorization and mindless plugging into formulas," says Dawn Meredith, a professor of physics who has worked with Graham on several interdisciplinary projects. "Karen has spent her career successfully promoting a much richer understanding and appreciation of mathematics, as a field which can be applied to solving real-world, engaging problems."

Teachers who head out in the field and collect data for themselves—samples of air, water, and earth, for example—have what Graham calls an authentic learning experience. "We're trying to put them into tangible situations where they can think about questions they're interested in asking—and how to translate these ideas to their classrooms," says Graham.

This focus on connecting research to practice has always been a driving force for Graham, who arrived at UNH as a graduate student in 1987 and credits department mentors Joan Ferrini-Mundy and the late Richard Ballomenos as role models. "It was instilled in us from the start that we're a state institution," says Graham, "and therefore part of our role is to provide outreach and get involved in scholarship to the state."

No matter what the project, colleagues agree, Graham avoids the spotlight in favor of supporting others. "Her leadership style 'encourages the heart' of her colleagues," says Julie Williams, associate vice president for research and outreach scholarship. Whether she's on a mountaintop or in a classroom, in the woods or at a conference, public service is simply a natural extension of her approach to her work. It's just what she does—and who she is.

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