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Mills College professor wins highest math award

February 25, 2011 9:36:37 PM PST
A Mills College professor has won the nation's highest award for teaching math. Zvezdelina Stankova, Ph.D., has made it her mission to inspire Bay Area students to follow a path in mathematics.

Stankova probably wouldn't be here had it not been for her math teacher in her native Bulgaria. In class one day she was given a second chance to solve a math problem.

"I was very puzzled how my classmates could do it and I couldn't. I couldn't believe it, that that was the case. So I went to the math circle and three months later I won the local math Olympiads with a perfect score," said Stankova.

That day her teacher told her, "What comes from within you, can take you very far." Stankova now gives that advice to all her students.

"I think Zvezda is good at laying out a lesson. You can tell that she knows it all backwards and forwards, but she is really good at connecting and knowing where you are," said one Mills College student.

"I feel that after doing so much mathematics, your brain works a certain way and it's a lot easier to tackle any sort of problem," said Mills College student Jess Martin.

Stankova has taught math at Mills College in Oakland for nearly 12 years. During that time, math majors and minors at Mills have more than doubled.

In 1998, Stankova founded the Berkeley Math Circle, a weekly afterschool program meant to engage students in a fun and exploratory way.

"What we are doing is great in the sense that we are introducing methods that have worked other countries. And it's great that the math circle movement is spreading throughout the United States," said Stankova.

But she would like to see even more American students become passionate about math, like in Bulgaria. She says teachers there are highly regarded and appreciated.

"The central government actually supported those circles by compensating those teachers who were doing the circles," said Stankova.

In 1987 she represented her country in the international math Olympiads, at the time, held in Cuba. The American team made up of all boys was impressed.

"They were, 'Wow, there are two girls on the same team?'" said Stankova.

A decade later in 1998 the U.S. finally sent a girl to compete -- Melanie Wood -- guess who trained her?

"I am very proud to say I trained the U.S. team at that time and so I trained Melanie also. She went on to win two silver medals at the International Math Olympiads," said Stankova.

Today Wood is doing post doctoral work at Stanford. Stankova has inspired other students. Katie Diaz was a student and one of her teaching assistants. Diaz also tutored high school students.

"First generation, college bound high school students and I started tutoring them and they understood the way I communicated math with them and you could see the light bulb come on," said Diaz.

Today Diaz develops intervention programs for teachers whose students are having a hard time with math.

Last month, the Mathematical Association of America awarded Stankova the Haimo Award for distinguished college teaching of math. Stankova was as excited as she was when she solved her first Rubik's Cube in her parent's car. At the time she was only in 5th grade -- an achievement that has led to many more.

"And it worked right there in the car. I screamed just like 'Goal!' like for the soccer championship. That was the equivalent for me personally," said Stankova.

So, ABC7 salutes Stankova, for sharing her love of mathematics with her students.


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