The future may be uncertain, but given a chance, Perla Myers will attempt to solve it.
“I like to problem solve. If something’s not the way it should be or could be, I like to try to figure out ways to improve it or come up with a solution,” she said. “I’m not very good at taking ‘No’ for an answer.”
Myers, department chair and professor in the University of San Diego’s Math and Computer Science Department, thrives on challenges, whether she’s working with USD students dialed into math or those who struggle with it. The recently named 2011 USD Faculty Women of Impact Award winner is eager to help.
“I really, really love working with those who have not had a positive experience with math,” she said. “It’s especially rewarding to learn math with them because it helps them to see math in a new light. I try to get them to see that it takes hard work. If they work hard, they’ll understand it and they’ll do well at it.”
It’s that same applied approach that Myers has taken to Longfellow, Alcott and Monarch elementary schools in San Diego. She’s trained new elementary teachers on the importance of math and the need to pass it on to classrooms consisting of the next generations of students.
Myers created a local Family Math Night program that brings elementary and secondary school teachers, parents and children together. Done twice a year, Myers, who came to USD in 1999 as an adjunct, has been involved with this program for a decade.
“What I found out is that for elementary teachers to understand the importance of math, they need to learn by seeing it and working directly with those whom they are most passionate about — the children,” Myers said. “Once they see that children can get excited about math, then they know they need to know math and it motivates them to teach it.”
Myers, who won the 2002 USD Innovation in Experiential Education Award for the math night idea, has done in-service trainings for elementary teachers through the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, Chula Vista and Lemon Grove school districts and a California Mathematics and Science Partnership grant. She’ll even use an oversized beach sandal (pictured) in a problem-solving demonstration if it helps the audience understand math better.
“Our world is becoming much more about math, technologically and scientifically based, and I think our students need more critical reasoning and thinking skills that come from studying math to help them thrive,” she said.
Myers, born in Mexico City and living in the U.S. since 1982, has certainly thrived. An honors student in math at the University of Houston with graduate degrees from UC San Diego, Myers’ desire to give back to teachers stems from her own experiences.
“I feel fortunate to have had experiences in my life with people who’ve nurtured me as mentors to help and guide me to do the best I could do. I feel fortunate now to have a little input with the students coming up, especially the future teachers. The state of education in the United States is in need of teachers who are well prepared. I feel that helping them prepare to teach is one of the most important jobs we do.”
Myers’ reach extends to inclusion and diversity opportunities in higher education through two other projects.
She and Marine Science and Environmental Studies Assistant Professor Drew Talley are co-advisors of one of USD’s newest student organizations, the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in the Sciences (SACNAS). Open to all USD students, Myers said, SACNAS is a gathering of scientists dedicated to fostering the success of Hispanic/Chicano and Native American scientists — from college students to professionals — in attaining advanced degrees, careers and positions of leadership.
Myers also helped USD secure a five-year, $600,000 National Science Foundation grant to support the project, Advancement of Female Faculty: Institutional climate, Recruitment and Mentoring (AFFIRM). This grant seeks to boost efforts to recruit women, particularly those of color, in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines as well as in social and behavioral sciences.
“Even though the number of women in PhD programs is increasing, it’s not showing up in the faculty numbers at the universities,” Myers said. “We’re very excited for this and the possibilities. It’s a wonderful group of (USD) women with great ideas and who are passionate about improving it.”
One thing’s for certain, Myers will do her best to solve it.
— Ryan T. Blystone