Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Esteban Mino, LUJ Professor of Mathematics
Math. For many, it’s a forest of knots, riddles and headaches, but for some, such as astronomer Galileo Galilei, the very “nature” of the world was “written in the language of mathematics.”
Thankfully for LUJ students, there’s Esteban Mino, professor of mathematics here at Lakeland. Dr. Mino, as a part of our ongoing faculty spotlight series, shared with us some of his experiences both in the classroom and out.
1) It's often uttered by many students (and adults) that they are “just not good at math." Do you think this is true? Or are they 'closing the door' before even trying to open it?
My opinion is that, yes, they are closing the door before even trying to open it. Math is a science of patterns and rules. If you follow them you will be able to get to your destination without trouble.
For example, if you, as a pedestrian, want to cross a road with several lines and with heavy traffic and you go to the pedestrian crosswalk and wait for the traffic light to turn red, it will be very easy to cross to the other side. On the contrary, if you try to cross it at the middle, it will be a very difficult mission, and you may or may not be able to succeed. What is happening is that in the first case you are following the rules and in the other case you are not.
Several years ago, when I started teaching math at LUJ or a bit before that, I learned through research that when people are afraid of something, the brain’s ability to do math is blocked. So, if a person is afraid, he or she will not be able to do math because his/her brain is blocked from it.
The research even went so far as to say that if you are in the jungle and you are afraid of a lion and you are running from the lion, you will not be able to do even one plus one.
2) It's clear from your classes that mathematics is your specialty. How early in life did you know that math was your passion, and how did it develop over time?
Actually, since I was in junior high and high school, I liked to teach. I liked to help my friends but I cannot say that math is or was my specialty. I also liked physics and some other technical subjects.
Most of the time, some of my friends and I liked to meet to study and do homework together. We always helped each other by explaining things that were not clear or that none of us could understand. I guess we developed little by little the ability to explain things in an easy way.
My dad is very good in math and he used to help me with it when I had trouble understanding so maybe I also learned from him. When I notice someone is not understanding [a concept] I find ways, usually with practical examples, to help them to understand more easily.
3) At Hiroshima University, where you earned your PhD, you worked as a researcher too. Could you tell us a bit about that research, and perhaps what you're currently looking into?
My research related to environmental issues, such as water pollution. Initially, I worked on finding methods to separate water and oil from oil emulsions used for metalworks. Oil emulsions are solutions where the oil and water are chemically bonded and are very difficult to separate. Therefore, to treat them, it is necessary to separate the oil from the water.
Activated carbon is found in many air and water filters. At Hiroshima, I also researched activated carbon and the effect that calcium has on the activated carbon’s ability to absorb pollutants from water.
If I remember correctly, before 2000, Teflon products were made (now prohibited by law) using a compound that remains in the water for a very long time and it is very difficult to remove. Many of our water bodies (lakes, rivers, etc…) are still polluted with it. I was with a research team and we searched for methods to treat and remove this pollutant from the water.
I was also a part of a project between Hiroshima University and the Santo Domingo University from Dominican Republic. One aspect of the research involved the analysis of pollution of the rivers surrounding the capital city, Santo Domingo, using satellite imagery.
While at Hiroshima University, I was involved in projects related to the exchange of students from different universities and Hiroshima University. I also collaborated in projects that sought the cooperation and agreement between foreign universities and Hiroshima University.
4) The typical math progression in primary/secondary school is, and correct us if we're wrong, basic arithmetic, pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, algebra II, trigonometry, pre-calculus, and then full-blown calculus. In your time as a math professor, which of these categories is the biggest 'leap' for a student? (For example, from geometry to algebra II.)
What I have noticed is that some students have serious problems with basic stuff and if they have problems with the basics, then they will have for sure difficulties in higher level math.
They will not have difficulties in everything but they will have difficulties in some areas depending on their deficiencies.
For example, some students do not understand or are very bad at fractions. They can do very well with other stuff when fractions don’t appear, but once fractions appear…things get complicated for them.
Some students have problems understanding the order of operations, for example they do not understand how to do 2 + 8 / 4. They do not understand why the correct answer is 4 and not 2.5. So, some of these students can understand more difficult concepts, but since they have a very basic problem with the fundamentals, even though they may understand more difficult stuff, their answers will be wrong because they are doing something incorrect that is very basic, and then, they get frustrated. Those are just some of the examples of issues I have seen.
It just came to my memory a student I had in one of my classes several years ago. The student was very intelligent and used to understand things very easily. I think that student used to answer every question I made in class correctly and very fast. I had to stop him from answering because, if he didn’t, other students could not participate in class.
The problem that student had was that he had issues not knowing how to do basic stuff like what I mentioned earlier. For example, the student could not complete operations in the correct order. So, when doing exercises, most of the time the student could not get to the correct answer not because he did not know what to do, but because some basic operation in the procedure was wrong.
The student used to come to me and tell me that he knows the answer is wrong because it is not logical. Some students who are very good in math sometimes cannot find that their answer is wrong, and they do not analyze it. But this student always did it and he understood the concepts and the logic behind it but he could not complete the fundamentals.
I did not have that student in lower-level math classes, so I do not know how he passed, but my guess is that since the passing grade is for example 60%, a student can pass even not knowing some basic stuff.
Students sometimes memorize how to do things for the exams but since they do not fully understand the process, after the time passes, they cannot do it anymore and it becomes a problem that will be there always and grows…like a snow ball gathering mass.
5) Of course, we know that you're not ALWAYS thinking about numerical data and/or variables. When you have some free time away from the math world, what do you like to do?
I like to play with my daughter, especially taking her to parks and playing with her outside.
I also like to climb mountains, and I have climbed several in Japan, including Mt. Fuji and Mt. Tsukuba. Oftentimes when people tell me to climb Mt. Fuji, I would tell them that I have been to the top already; however, for me, that is not actually climbing a mountain. You just follow the path and you will get to the top (from what I remember)...similar to trekking.
I like to ride my bicycle and that is something I still do. When I was a student at Hiroshima, and before coming to Tokyo area, I liked to go by bicycle (not in summer) to different places.
Nowadays, although I don’t do it as much as I’d like, I’ll try to go somewhere by bicycle instead of car, especially if the weather is right.
One other thing. I do not do it often but I like to cook, especially desserts, like cakes, ice creams, and some other sweets. (Editor’s note: Take a look at a few of Esteban’s creations, with some help from his wife on the pineapple crème brulee.)
I also like to read even though there is no a specific kind of book I read. Not so much novels or science fiction. I find other books more interesting.