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A career making math count

ASU math instructor Murray Siegel retiring from university to spend four mornings a week volunteering at neighborhood elementary school

ASU math instructor Murray Siegel

Murray Siegel taught three courses at ASU Polytechnic campus in the spring 2016 semester: Calculus for Engineers, Introductory Applied Statistics, and Brief Calculus. Photo by David Riemer

May 16, 2016

The past few years, ASU mathematics instructor Murray Siegel has been in what he calls “phased retirement,” driving the 80 miles roundtrip from his home in Maricopa, Arizona, to ASU’s Polytechnic campus only two days a week — albeit two very full days of teaching and office hours.

Siegel has now fully retired from the College of Letters and Sciences but, come August, he’ll be working in classrooms four days a week — team-teaching math concepts with his wife, Sharon, to advanced students at Butterfield Elementary School in the Maricopa Unified School District, just 1.2 miles from their front door.

“If I could move the Polytechnic campus five miles from Maricopa I’d teach at ASU forever,” laughed Siegel, who speaks very highly of his colleagues in the faculty of science and mathematics and the whole Polytechnic campus environment.

“Faculty and staff at every level are just very helpful. The folks I work with really care about students and the subject matter, and across academic areas people are so collaborative and friendly,” he said.  

By way of example, Siegel cites how his conversations with colleague Marianne Moore, an animal ecologist who studies disease in bat populations, led to her giving him research data that he could bring directly to his statistics students — many of whom are applied biological sciences majors — giving them the chance to manipulate and analyze data connected to real, relevant challenges.

“The level of cooperation here is very, very special and something I’ve not experienced anyplace else,” said Siegel, who has taught at a number of colleges and K-12 schools in Georgia, Texas, and Arizona over the last 42 years. “I would’ve loved to have come here earlier in my career.” 

Meaningful work

Siegel, who majored in physics in college, started his career as an engineer. After serving in the Air Force, including a tour of duty in Vietnam, he spent a number of years as an executive in the investment world.

Eventually, the work of “making rich people richer” — while having little time to spend with his wife and two sons — led to an imbalance in the risk-reward ratio for Siegel, and he was ready to make a career change.  

“Sharon had always been a teacher and enjoyed it, and all the math I’d taken as a physics major qualified me at that time to teach,” he said. 

When the opportunity arose to teach for the Georgia primary school his sons attended, he seized it.

“I realized the very first day in the classroom, this is what I should be doing,” reflected Siegel, who went on to earn a master’s and a doctorate in math education.

Whether he’s teaching college students or K-12 students, he said, his primary goal is the same: to bring students to an understanding of the many ways they can apply math in the world.

“I don’t think any student could ever finish one of my courses and say: When will I ever use this?”

For the calculus and statistics courses he has taught at ASU, he has found endless real-life situations to bring into the classroom for modeling, analysis and practical application — from realms including politics, sports, geography, sociology, business, biology and medicine, and real estate.   

“A political consultant doing surveys will email me the product and I’ll show it to my students, for example, and we’ll talk about the survey design and the actual inferential statistics and margin of error. I’ll ask students to give me a topic that interests them, perhaps something related to their other courses, and I’ll create a problem,” he said.

And then there were all those hours spent listening to National Public Radio driving between ASU Polytechnic campus and Maricopa, hearing about new studies and current trends.

“My head is filled with stuff I can use in classroom to show not just how the math works, but how we use it.” 

Sticking close to home 

Clearly, Murray Siegel’s newfound hours of personal time will continue to sate the life of the mind.

He intends to remain active in the Society for American Baseball Research, where he can geek out in a realm that combines several of his passions.

Baseball, not surprisingly, is Siegel’s favorite sport — partly because it’s so rich in statistics and partly because he grew up in Brooklyn, New York, in the era when the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants were all based in the Big Apple.

His father and brother were Dodgers fans. Just to be contrary, he chose to be a Yankees fan.

“I like to compare players of different eras — say of the ’50s and ’60s — and how they fared under very particular conditions, e.g. how did this batter perform on a Thursday afternoon, when the plate was in full sun, and he was facing the same pitcher for a third time in a game?”

These kinds of questions are more interesting when looking at data from baseball’s earlier days, before there were relief pitchers, he said: “By the time Ty Cobb got up later in a game, he’d seen the full repertoire of pitches and the guy on the mound was getting tired.”

Siegel will also continue to write as a volunteer for a weekly newspaper and community magazine in Maricopa. He has recently been contributing “meet your neighbor” profiles for the magazine, where he has enjoyed writing about new retirees to the community as well as people who have strong roots in the area, helping give people a historical perspective of this growing city.

But job one will still be teaching math and, hopefully, influencing the college-ready pipeline.

He and Sharon, who retired from the faculty of Central Arizona College, are excited to be able to up their volunteering in elementary classrooms from two mornings a week to four.

It’s clear from talking to Murray that the opportunities they’ve had through the years to co-teach, to co-present conference presentations and workshops, and to be sometimes teaching at the same institution have made for — and continue to make — a rewarding life and marriage.   

“She’s especially great at finding new real-world math activities that the kids will enjoy, and I like trying to figure out why a particular activity works. Then when we talk to teachers about these activities, we can give them all of the underpinnings,” he said.

“It’s a great partnership.”

And he practically bubbles over when he talks about the elementary classrooms they work with.

“We really want to get these kids to be excited about math and to inspire them to love the subject and consider going further in math-intensive fields,” said Siegel. “It’s wonderful when you can see them begin to feed off of each other’s enthusiasm and they become more verbal to teach their peers, when they know they have the right answer and others are still confused.”  

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