Alumni Profile: Jered Bright

Jered Bright's journey through the University of Minnesota started with the undergraduate Mathematics program at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. He went on to complete his MS in Mathematics with Education emphasis and his MEd in Mathematics before starting his career as a Teaching Specialist at University of Minnesota – Rochester. Now a Senior Teaching Specialist at UMR and Liasion for the Rochester UMTYMP division, Bright was recently awarded the  Horace T. Morse-University of Minnesota Alumni Association Award for Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Education. We caught up with Jered in an interview – read on to discover how his relationship with Mathematics education has grown over the years!

Q: Please share a bit about your current role at UMR – did you always know you wanted a career in academia? If not, what inspired you to take that leap? 

JB: My journey to my current role came as a bit of a surprise to me. When I was entering the University of Minnesota Twin Cities (UMTC) as an undergraduate student I wanted to major in astrophysics and was convinced I was going to work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). One semester in was enough to for me to learn that route was not for me! After being undecided for some time, but still in the Institute of Technology (now College of Science and Engineering) at UMTC, I landed on mathematics after I recognized my passion for teaching from Chicano Studies class. In this course, I was able to volunteer in a bilingual math class in Minneapolis Public Schools. I found great joy in this experience when I recognized mathematics was a communication tool that was consistent across different languages and could be expressed using multiple methods. My joy was amplified in I witnessed the excitement students felt when they finally understood a concept. This experience is one of many that I carry with me as inspiration on my toughest days. 

With this start on a math teacher career path, I did not know what population I wanted to work with – elementary, middle, high, post-secondary, adult learners. I sought out opportunities to interact with as many different populations as I could. Through programs like Breakthrough St. Paul, DirecTrack to Teaching, the Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) Facilitator program at UMTC, and the University of Minnesota’s Talented Youth in Mathematics Program (UMTYMP), I got that experience narrowed to either middle school, high school, or post-secondary learners. As I entered my final year of my undergraduate experience at UMTC, I found the Math MS/MEd program offered in partnership between then the Institute of Technology and College of Education and Human Development. This program offered credentials that would allow me the flexibility to work with any one of the three populations of interest to me. As I progressed through the dual master’s program, I became convinced I wanted to work in a middle school setting as I find their energy to be infectious and they still carry motivation and curiosity with them. A family member then shared a job posting from Rochester’s The Post Bulletin newspaper for a teaching specialist in mathematics at UMR. After submitting my application in October and finally interviewing in February, I was offered the position. I figured that it would be a nice job to start after college -- continuing teaching in a college environment, building my skills, and then switching to a 5-12 grade setting a few years down the road. I guess that hasn’t happened yet as I’ve been at UMR since August 2012. I have found great fulfillment through my current role. 

At the University of Minnesota Rochester (UMR) I am currently a Senior Teaching Specialist (we call my role Student-Based Faculty) that regularly teaches courses in mathematics, statistics, and both transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary courses with community engaged learning components. The courses outside of mathematics partner with Rochester Public Schools but have two different contexts: one builds science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) thinking and mentoring skills in undergraduates who then mentor elementary students in STEM activities; the other leverages creative projects to investigate mental health. However, since we are a small campus, you will find almost everyone has had a variety of interdisciplinary experiences and wears multiple hats. In addition to my teaching role at UMR, I have recently been appointed to the role of Director of Summer Programs where I am charged with optimizing summer experiences; in the past I have led several initiatives focused on transitioning new students to college life or helping students explore careers in health sciences.

Q: How did your transition to UMR – both between cities and moving from the role of student to teacher – impact you? 

JB: As I practically grew up in Rochester, transitioning from the Twin Cities to Rochester wasn’t too bad, though “the mall” at UMTC is a bit different from “the mall” at UMR as UMR’s primary building is in a literal mall in downtown Rochester! 

On the other side of the transition, from student to teacher, I felt prepared to take on teaching responsibilities at UMR from the variety of experiences I had during my undergraduate and master’s programs. Then I started the job and found out I was not ready! At UMR, we emphasize teamwork – for both students and faculty/staff. While I was ready to teach individually, I was not ready to teach collaboratively. The first year of teaching is notoriously stressful - you’re creating many materials for the first time, learning policies and procedures of your institution in a new way, and figuring out ways to best support students and their networks. In addition to this, I was immersed in an environment where we had to have three, sometimes four, instructors all on the same page to co-deliver the same content to multiple sections of students so students would have very similar learning experiences. Our instructional team would have many meetings and long email chains to hopefully get everyone on the same page. Many times, we succeeded; other times we struggled to find middle ground. “Feedback” was a word I came to despise as it meant more investment of time and energy. Looking back now, I am very grateful for this experience as I recognize how much I grew as an instructor, and a mathematician, during that first year, even if it was incredibly taxing. 

Q: You're a liaison for Rochester UMTYMP. How does this part of your work stand out to you? 

JB: For context, I began my work with UMTYMP at UMTC as a TA for the high school level of the component and worked with the calculus component in my masters program. 

When I began at UMR, I was introduced to staff members who were familiar with UMTYMP and had access to a network of families that were interested in further math programming for their gifted students. Ultimately, this led to the relaunch of the Rochester site of UMTYMP in 2013 after closure in the late 2000s. To relaunch the site, I had to learn many skills: navigating institutional structures, marketing and promoting, and forging alliances with families and community partners. Drawing on the UMTYMP structure and my previous experience was definitely a boon to these efforts! Having the experience from rebuilding UMTYMP in Rochester has proven to be a critical cornerstone to the other programs and initiatives I have been involved in or helped to create for UMR over my tenure. 

Now, more than 10 years later and several completed cohorts of students, I continue to receive accolades about the program – all of them expressing gratitude for the program in some form. Students are grateful for the quality of the experience they were given and the opportunity to engage with peers in math content that was very interesting and appropriately challenging for their abilities. Echoing students, families share appreciation that they finally found something that meets the needs for their child and wish that similar programs existed for other learning areas.

While my role as Rochester UMTYMP liaison continues, it has shifted some to focus more on the safety of the students and site logistics. UMTYMP will forever have a special place in my heart. On our small UMR campus, when undergraduates see smaller students with giant backpacks, they refer to those students as “Bright’s Army of Geniuses.” To be clear, I’m only one of several UMTYMP instructors… and I’m not forming an army! 

Q: How would you describe your experience as a UMN-TC Math student? 

JB: I liken my experience as an undergraduate math student to that of an amusement park: once you gain access it is fun and thrilling. Gaining access is the tricky piece. For me, I struggled significantly in MATH 3283W, which is an introduction to real analysis. It was the first time I experienced proof writing in a significant way. I was often lost in the mechanics and logic in the course, unsure how to structure and sequence my arguments. Though some of the confusion followed me into upper-level coursework, once I finished this initial course, I looked at every course thereafter with the sense of wonder, excitement, and enthusiasm as I found myself curious to learn something challenging at a very abstract level of mathematics. The thrill that comes with exploring a new ride at an amusement park (a course or concept in a field of mathematics) isn’t without challenges though – you need to wait in line (exhibit patience and persistence in learning), experience the ups and downs during the experience (grades and feedback!), and discover what rides you like (combinatorics and non-Euclidean geometries) and don’t like (real analysis). 

Q: What advice might you give to current Math undergraduates at UMN? 

JB: I have a lot of advice that I frequently share with my undergraduates at UMR, but one specific item I’d share with undergraduate math students is that even though math often is characterized as cold and unattached (because of the correct versus incorrect nature of the work), relationships are central to our work in mathematics. This certainly means relationships with the structures in mathematics, but my intent with this phrase is more about the relationship among the people surrounding mathematics. How often do you visit with a classmate? TA? Professor? Do they know you by name? Do they know something about you? Do you know something about them? You don’t need to be best friends, but having relationships to support you in your journey is critical to success – just like utilizing relationships among mathematical structures as you create a proof of a theorem. Make space for relationships, build them, and use them.