Why do we need to know this? How is it relevant to the real world? Is it useful, or is it just a job creation project for mathematicians? These are some common questions that have echoed through Professor Joseph Khoury’s classroom over the years. He’ll be the first to tell you that linear algebra isn’t always an easy sell, but when given the chance, it doesn’t take him long to win over most skeptics.
“Linear algebra introduces students to abstract thinking and helps them develop geometrical instincts,” says Khoury. “But it also has many real-life applications, from looking at traffic flow to predicting the weather. If students don’t understand the value of what they’re learning, it affects their motivation, and ultimately, their success. That’s why I’ve focused on trying to bring linear algebra back down to Earth to help students understand its worth.”
His hard work has paid off in more ways than one. Professor Khoury is not only beloved by his students, but also has received three national awards in the past five years, making him the first Canadian mathematician to be honoured in such a way. He was most recently presented with the Adrien Pouliot Award by the Canadian Mathematical Society (CMS) in June 2021 for his outstanding contributions to mathematics education.
In 2020, Khoury received the CMS Excellence in Teaching Award, the most prestigious Canadian award in mathematics teaching, and in 2017, he won the Graham Wright Award for his service to Canada’s math community.
“It speaks volumes to his dedication and efforts in promoting the importance of mathematics,” says Rafal Kulik, a friend and uOttawa colleague from the Faculty of Science’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics.
Professor Khoury received his bachelor’s degree from Lebanese University in Beirut and his PhD from the University of Ottawa in 2001. He has been teaching at uOttawa ever since and is a coordinator of the faculty’s Mathematics and Statistics Help Centre.
For more than two decades, Khoury has worked tirelessly to promote mathematics at the University, within the local community and at the national level. In 2001, he co-founded Math Horizons Day, an ongoing program that teaches young students about the importance of mathematics in our world.
“I grew up watching most parts of the world struggling with the notions of truth and order and having to dig deep to find traces of beauty and elegance,” says Khoury. “I found in mathematics all that was missing from that world: the undoubtable truth of results, the rigorous order in which they are presented and the beauty and elegance of every statement and every proof. In my classes, I try hard to show the practical applications of every theorem I teach, but I try even harder to convey to students that the struggle behind the proof of that theorem is a testament that good things in life have to be earned.”
Khoury has served multiple terms as chair of the Canadian Mathematical Society’s education committee and as chair of its bilingualism committee. He is on the selection committee of the Prime Minister’s Awards for Teaching Excellence in STEM and has lobbied hard to have similar recognition for teachers at the collegiate and undergraduate levels.
He fostered a plan to include a temporary exhibit highlighting Canadian mathematics at Ottawa’s National Museum of Science and Technology and was a member of a national focus group to enhance the image of mathematics in Canada. He also organizes a bilingual CMS math camp at uOttawa, one of the largest math camps in the country, and was instrumental in bringing a math camp to the Yukon.
Khoury and a team of colleagues from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics are currently working on a project to help the cohort of students graduating from high school in 2021, whose education was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, transition to uOttawa.
“Many young students see in mathematics a source of anxiety and stress at the best of times,” he says. “This is much more evident now with the pandemic. Topics in mathematics that are usually challenging, even in an in-person setting with ample chances to ask questions, are skimmed through quickly online. None of this is their fault. There is an urgent need to act now to help students and alleviate their worries that they may not be ready for university.”