pablo duran oliva

Pablo Duran Oliva, Ph.D.

Job title: Assistant Professor
Affiliation: Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics

Duran Oliva is interested in finding a better understanding of the impact of student-centered instruction on student attitudes and classroom equity.

Pablo Duran Oliva, Ph.D., was born in Santiago, Chile. He earned a mathematics engineering title from Universidad de Concepción (Chile), and his Ph.D. in mathematics education from The University of Texas at Austin. Duran Oliva has been continuously looking for ways to improve the learning experience of undergraduate students in mathematics courses. One of his primary research interests has been the impact of student-centered instruction on student attitudes and classroom equity. Other research interests also include curriculum design, problem-solving and the integration of mathematics in the science undergraduate curriculum. He has taught several undergraduate courses, including calculus for engineers, mathematics epistemology, and problem-solving for preservice teachers. He most recently worked as a research associate professor in the development and implementation of a multi-institutional active learning calculus curriculum at Florida International University in Miami.

Q&A with Dr. Duran Oliva

Where did you grow up? Can you tell us a little about your educational journey?

I grew up in a suburban area in Santiago, Chile. After graduating from high school, I earned a mathematical engineering degree at Universidad de Concepcion. As a mathematical engineer, I worked for three years on two different engineering projects (in atmospheric dispersion and life expectancy models). In the next four years, motivated by a strong desire to teach, I accepted two subsequent teaching positions in universities in two rural areas mainly serving students coming from low-income families. 

As an instructor, the difficulties students would often face in college and the lack of motivation toward mathematics I often perceived were extremely concerning. Also troubling were to me the clear disadvantages and challenges some students faced solely because of their gender and race/ethnicity. These experiences strongly compelled me to search for a broader understanding of these issues, as well as opportunities for promoting institutional change in college mathematics. 

Helped by two scholarships, I earned a Ph.D. in mathematics education from The University of Texas at Austin. After I graduated from UT, I taught math education to preservice teachers for two years at UV, a large public university in Chile. The last three years before coming to VCU, I worked as a visiting research professor in Miami at Florida International University supporting a curriculum renewal initiative geared toward addressing historical high failure rates of STEM undergraduate students in calculus.

When did you first fall in love with your field of study? What made you decide to work in academia?

It probably started with the first opportunity I had to teach undergrad mathematics to non-math majors. It was incredibly motivating for me to search for multiple ways to communicate mathematical ideas to students who would not typically appreciate mathematics in the same way a math major would. I was constantly encouraged to think of mathematics from different perspectives, test the clarity of my understanding of key math concepts and find more straightforward routes to solve problems. 

At the same time, the perception that students in the class were making new connections between concepts, increasing their confidence in solving problems and actively participating in mathematical discussions always gave me a renewed appreciation of mathematics instruction. It often felt that teaching was another place where the initial excitement and joy found in discovering mathematical ideas could repeatedly be shared. 

The experience I had while teaching math was also rewarding on a personal and social level. College teaching could be directly linked to career-changing decisions that deeply impact students and their communities – socially, economically and culturally. This perception of teaching led me to search for ways to have a deeper impact on the educational system, thus considering issues related to curriculum design and classroom equity. Research in undergraduate mathematics has been a powerful tool to search for larger-scale solutions to more systematic issues in education.

Can you explain the focus of your research?

Most recently, my efforts have concentrated on finding a better understanding of the impact of student-centered instruction on student attitudes and classroom equity. Calculus, while being one of the most critical courses in the STEM curriculum, not only has traditionally shown high levels of student attrition but also sharp declines in students' confidence in, and enjoyment of, mathematics. These issues have not been equally distributed across student demographics, showing large gaps in initial attitudes in female students and students from traditionally marginalized communities. I am currently investigating how student-centered classrooms could increase levels of self-confidence, and enjoyment of mathematics in students, as well as create more equitable social norms.

What attracted you to VCU?

The math department at VCU has a well-recognized group of colleagues passionate about mathematics and with a clear commitment to pursuing excellence in teaching. It also has a clear recognition of the importance of math education research, evident by its commitment to incorporating research-based instruction that better addresses the constantly changing student needs in their curricula. Last, I am also particularly attracted to the clear commitment that VCU has to celebrating differences and providing a welcoming environment to its diverse group of students, staff, and faculty from all backgrounds, beliefs and abilities. I am really excited about joining these efforts!

Can you talk a little about your teaching philosophy? What do you most like about teaching?

I believe that teaching needs to be not only built upon students' prior understanding but on fostering an equitable community of learners. Classrooms should promote opportunities for students to actively engage in their learning process and to create a safe environment where they can feel confident to try new ideas and get valuable feedback from peers. In such a learning environment, the different abilities everyone brings are better shared and previous learning gaps can be better addressed. It is also ten times more enjoyable to be part of such a classroom. The traditional lecture-based model, where the instructor is the center of the learning process, is not only less effective but also a lot less fun for everyone.