Stephen Harnish

  • Stephen HarnishWhat excites you the most about teaching math?

There are so many aspects of teaching math that excite me. One is the experience of helping a student who has struggled to finally "get it."  Also just knowing that teaching math is really giving a gift—the initial knowledge keeps on rewarding students with practical skills and reasoning abilities they can use over a life-time to apply in many different settings, fields and jobs. It's exciting to discover a new application that scientists have found or to share an ancient principle animated in the modern vernacular of internet applets and computer technologies.

When did you first know that you wanted to be a math professor?
That was in college. I had always enjoyed math and science and thought I'd major in Biology.  But a certain curiosity kept me focusing on foundational questions of each course—like "Why is this law true?" or "What are our (hidden) assumptions?" This line of reasoning almost always led to mathematics; I had this sense that math was behind a lot of things.

What was your favorite class to teach and why?
Discrete math. I've taught it many times and enjoy experimenting with new activities and projects. It's rewarding to see some groups of students really latch onto the patterns and principles of discrete math. I've especially seen that with encryption projects where they develop their own encoding schemes and "break the codes" of other teams.

What is your favorite season/event on campus?
One is around May Day when alumni come back to visit. Seeing their growth over time--from prospective, to present, to past students is exciting and really at the heart of what we're about at Bluffton.  It's great to hear about their lives and what they've done with their education. Meeting students at the Presidential Scholarship Competition is another event I really enjoy. At the open house we communicate our passion for teaching and research and can share something of the intellectual and community life at Bluffton.

When you are not teaching, what do you enjoy doing?
Going to campus music and sporting events or occasionally playing some rounds of Ultimate Frisbee. I also relish spending time with my family going hiking, kicking around a soccer ball, getting out for a run or playing music together.

What was the first job you ever had?
I started out mowing lawns for the elderly in my community of Flanagan, Ill. After that I worked as a maintenance worker for Maple Lawn Nursing Homes in Eureka, Ill. I find those maintenance and construction skills still useful when fixing-up my own house. As far as teaching goes, my first co-taught class was Conversational English at Sichuan Teacher's University in China (as an exchange student in 1985). My first "real job" of full-time teaching was at Neumann—a Franciscan college near Philadelphia that I left in 1996 to come to Bluffton.

What extracurricular activities were you involved in when you were a college student?
I was in choir my first year and a renaissance recorder group my second. I also joined a Christian rock band that toured a few states—singing and playing electric bass. For sports I ran track: mile, half mile and 10k. Occasionally I'd play tuba in the orchestra or spend time in the physics and computer labs.

Where is your favorite place to go on vacation?
For the long run our family hopes to get back to Brazil where my wife was raised. In 2002 I attended a conference for mathematical physics near Rio. During those meetings my family loved to take the ferry boat to Ilha Grande—a good-sized island on the Atlantic coast known for its biodiversity. We hope to get back there sometime to do more hiking—except next time, instead of me carrying my boys on my back it will likely be the other way around! On a year to year basis closer to home, we enjoy boating and canoeing in the Upper Peninsula by Hessel, Mich.

What is your specific area of interest in mathematics?
Well my doctoral dissertation was in logic and set theory. Logic provides a way of analyzing the assumptions and axioms of many fields. It has philosophical implications by showing limitations of reasoning—recognizing there are many mathematical statements that can't be proven or disproven using the standard assumptions of the field. I'm now exploring connections between logic and network science. Networks of interconnected nodes naturally arise in the social and physical sciences—from genetics to sociology, linguistics, epidemiology and physics. It's rewarding to engage in this interdisciplinary research with students and colleagues from other institutions—it's exciting to see the quick pace of development of mathematical tools to better understand the structure and dynamics of naturally occurring networks.

What are some things on your 'bucket list'?
Professionally: Besides a couple new research lines in logic I'd like to push forward, there are two specific applications of networks to physics and biology that I'd add to the list. I've been developing aspects of those research topics for about 20 years now and I see them heading towards conclusion—that is very rewarding. On a lighter, recreational theme, I enjoy studying the math of juggling and want to be able to juggle four or more balls.

Finally on a personal level: I'd throw-in learning to play classical guitar and traveling with our family. Ideally we'd visit Europe and Asia more...and return to South Africa. As part of a sabbatical in 2006 I was a visiting researcher in the math department at the University of Cape Town. It was a great experience—both for the challenging and inspiring stories of a society moving beyond apartheid, but also for the research contacts and many stimulating discussions. So I'd like to spend another sabbatical there. Unfortunately that won't be this summer...so I'll just have to be content watching World Cup Soccer from a distance!