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Dan Schultz-Ela describes his path to becoming a math professor for elementary education majors as “long and varied.”


Dan Schultz-Ela, associate professor of mathematics

When Dan Schultz-Ela, PhD, was working as a geologist, people loved to ask him questions about rocks in their backyards. Then he transitioned into a new career. Now, when the associate professor of mathematics tells people he teaches math, he’s often greeted with silence. Schultz-Ela understands. It’s a subject that once intimidated him, too.

“When I went to college I intended to be a math major, but then it got hard and scary,” he said. He took a geology course and it felt like familiar territory to a kid who grew up in Grand Junction. “It was like, ‘Oh, I’ve seen all these things!’ It made a lot of sense to me so I went into geology.”

He continued to pursue geology after graduation, receiving a Fulbright grant to research and study in New Zealand. Eventually he obtained a master’s and doctorate in the discipline, but he never abandoned his interest in math.

“The further I went in geology, I was drawn to the quantitative side of it. I started taking the math courses again and using it a lot in my research,” Schultz-Ela said. “I ended up getting a job where I was doing mathematical modeling and computer simulations of how rocks deform, how geological structures form. I was in the middle between math and geology at that point.”

He left his job as a research scientist at the University of Texas and returned to the Western Slope where he became a teacher, joining Colorado Mesa University as a math instructor in 2005. When a math education position opened, he was able to transition into it. “I’ve gone from numerical modeling research to teaching future elementary teachers and explaining long division,” Schultz-Ela said. “It’s been great.”

He aims to not only increase students’ knowledge, but to deepen their understanding of math. “I really enjoy thinking about why we do the things we do and explaining the process,” said Schultz-Ela. “Why did we do this? How can we represent it? How can we connect it to other ideas? I think those are valuable skills for elementary teachers because most of them know how to do the math, they just don’t know how to explain it.”

Schultz-Ela’s Math 105 course is the first math content class elementary education majors take. He enjoys getting his students to think about the subject in a different way. “It’s a challenge for me because many of them — most of them, perhaps — don’t like math. They’re scared of it, they don’t have much confidence.” His challenge is to get them to understand and appreciate math, and also boost their confidence.

“It’s actually a pretty positive energy class because students go, ‘Oh! Now I see!’,” he said. Then he laughed. “Sometimes, at least.”

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