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Mathematician wins Jefferson teaching award

Vladimir Bolotnikov. By Stephen SalpukasVladimir Bolotnikov changes his classroom technique to match the abilities and background to students enrolled in each of the math classes he teaches.

“I teach differently, depending on what I determine the level—the average level—of the class is. I try to figure out within a week how strong the class is, what kind of background everyone has,” he says. “I have some quizzes and talk to them in office hours. And of course, I’m watching them—their eyes. Are they understanding it?”

Bolotnikov, an associate professor in the mathematics department, is the recipient of William and Mary’s 2007 Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award. The honor is traditionally part of William and Mary’s annual Charter Day activities. He currently teaches Math 211, Linear Algebra, and Math 403, Intermediate Analysis, but several letters supporting his nomination for the award mention the skill and patience Bolotnikov demonstrates in getting students over the hurdle of sophomore-level multivariable calculus, a class he teaches from time to time.

“Professor Bolotnikov has had a profound impact on my academic path,” wrote Ian Grooms, a former student now in the Ph.D. program in applied math at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “I took classes from him for three semesters in a row during my time at William and Mary. Those three semesters helped convince me to become a math major and to pursue a career in mathematics.”

Bolotnikov taught middle-school and high-school mathematics for five years after getting his master’s degree. (“Very helpful for teaching,” he said. “Not very helpful for my research career.”) He credits the experience with helping him to develop his classroom skills.

“You learn how to be clear, to react fast,” he said. “It’s important to be able to determine quickly what the average level of the audience is.”

Math department Chair and Ferguson Professor Chi-Kwong Li, in a letter of nomination, pointed out that Bolotnikov’s interest and dedication extends beyond his William and Mary classroom duties. He has served as a freshman/sophomore advisor as well as a primary major advisor and participated in summer Research Experience for Undergraduates programs funded by the National Science Foundation.

“Professor Bolotnikov is one of the mathematics faculty members interested in mathematical education issues,” Li wrote. “In particular, he has given a great deal of help in the preparation of the proposals and summer courses of the Mathematics and Science Partnership Grant of Virginia State, 2004-2006.”

William and Mary has no formal graduate program in mathematics, and Bolotnikov sometimes works on research with high-performing undergraduate students. “From time to time I have an exceptional student, maybe one or two a year,” he said. Once such student is Paul Smith, a 2006 graduate now in a Ph.D. program at UCLA and the winner of last year’s Thomas Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy. The two collaborated on a paper, published in Linear Algebra and its Applications in 2004.

“I felt especially fortunate that Prof. Bolotnikov was so willing to share with me his thoughts on how to present and explain math,” Smith wrote in support of his mentor’s nomination. “Nowadays, in carrying out my duties as a teaching assistant, I frequently reflect on these conversations that Prof. Bolotnikov had with me.”

A native of Ukraine, Bolotnikov came to William and Mary in 1998 as a visiting assistant professor. He holds the Ph.D. from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel. Past honors at William and Mary include the 2004 Simon Prize for Excellence in Teaching of Mathematics and the 2005 Alumni Fellowship Award for Excellence in Teaching.