Math professor reflects on changes in 37 years, offers advice to students

Dr. Mary Salter

Dr. Mary Salter

BY RACHEL DEL GUIDICE
CATHOLIC VALUES COLUMNIST

Mary Salter was not planning on a career as a math professor when she started out as a college student.

However, as Salter prepares to retire 37 years later, she is happy that she made the decision to enter the world of mathematics.

Originally, Salter was aiming for a career as a nurse when she began her studies at the College of Steubenville. The nursing degree required two years of math, so Salter dived into her mathematics studies.

She discovered an attraction to math that she had not anticipated. Upon receiving her bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the College of Steubenville, Salter hoped to do research.

However, her plans took a little detour. Salter married and went back to school to get her master’s.

“I wanted to stay home with (my children),” Salter said. “When my kids started getting a little older, I started teaching part time here at Franciscan University and at Jefferson Technical College.”

It was then that Salter fell in love with teaching and changed her plans of devoting her life to research.

“It just so happened that there was an opening here at the university about the time that my youngest went into elementary school,” said Salter. “My husband worked here as well. I applied for the job, got hired and have been here ever since.”

“I always considered my family to be my top priority, so teaching was the perfect way that I could still be with them but also do what I loved in the academic world,” said Salter. “When the opening occurred to teach here, I thought, ‘Oh wow. That would be really cool.’”

As it turned out, being a teacher was really the perfect fit for Salter. “Teaching here has been so ideal because I could be home for my kids when they got off of school,” she said. “I could spend my summers with them and have much more control over my schedule than a lot of other jobs I could have had. It was great that I could arrange my day around my kids and their schedules.”

Perhaps one of the best aspects of Salter’s job was that she liked her subject matter. A lot. She said, “I always loved telling my students about math. Math is really cool.”

Salter also said that part of the uniqueness of her teaching career journey was seeing the computer science major develop.

“During the time that my husband taught here, there was only the math department,” she explained. “Computers were just becoming available.”

Salter said that her husband started the computer science program at Franciscan University, and, with the help of IBM technicians (International Business Machines), she was able to set up the first administrative computer used on campus.

“It was a real honor to work with the IBM engineers and install the very first administrative computer, used for record keeping and registration,” said Salter.

This experience helped to equip Salter to begin teaching students how to use computers. “I used the knowledge I gained installing outfirst computer in our first computer science classes here at Franciscan,” she said. She helped to develop the coursework for the computer science major and taught some of the first computer science classes.

Dr. Mary Salter

Dr. Mary Salter

Another highlight in Salter’s career was the university making it possible for her to go back to school and receive her doctorate in mathematics from the University of Pittsburgh.

“By the time I got my doctorate, we had hired some computer science professors enabling me to teach math, what I really loved doing,” she said.

Salter has seen much development in her 37 years of teaching. “When I was a student here, we used slide rules in order to do our math assignments,” she said. “When I started teaching here, calculators were just becoming affordable and used by people.”

Salter said that her students were doing computations by hand and math charts that were available in the back of textbooks.

“Back then, everything was done on the chalkboard,” Salter said. “We didn’t have powerpoints or computer projectors.”

She continued, “Probably the biggest change I have seen in my teaching career is the huge advance of technology.”

When thinking about her years of teaching, spanning more than three decades, Salter says that working with students and fellow teachers has been the most rewarding part. “I enjoy all of my colleagues,” she said. “One of the things I really like about this university is that you have the opportunity to be friends with all of the faculty. You get to interact with philosophy people, history people, etc., whereas at bigger state schools, sometimes the only people you see are professors in your own discipline.”

Salter also enjoys the connection she gets to make with each of her students.

“I like working with students,” she said, “and I really like when you are talking during a lecture and can see on their faces that they are ‘getting it.’ It is so rewarding. That is what I really like.”

And, for Salter, the subject makes it even better. “I love describing the beauty of math to people,” she said.

As teaching is a vocation, Salter encourages aspiring teachers to have an attitude of humility.

“Always view yourself as a student,” she advised. “There are always opportunities to learn more about everything. Interact with other teachers. Go to conferences and no matter how good a teacher you are, you can always become better. There is always something you can adapt to enrich your teaching.”

As Salter prepares to retire, she wishes to encourage students today to remain open to various ways of learning. “Students today learn very differently than how I learned as a student,” she said. “We got all our information either from lectures or textbooks. Students today get most of their information from videos and are much more visual in their approach to things.”

Salter said that she would encourage students not to rely just on technology but on other methods of learning as well.

Dr. Mary Salter

Dr. Mary Salter, professor of mathematics

“I would encourage students to be aware that there are lots of ways of learning, not just learning with computers and technology,” she said. “Develop appreciation for the lectures you receive and the books that are available to you. Appreciate every avenue of information out there.”

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