By Brian Macon, Professor of Mathematics and Phi Theta Kappa Advisor
Unlike many other faculty members, my sabbatical leave did not involve a trip. Instead, it provided me renewed achievement and growth and afforded me the opportunity to work on my dissertation for my Ph.D. program, which was extremely valuable.
I was accepted as a student in the Ph.D. program for modeling and simulation at the University of Central Florida in 2010. My sabbatical came at the perfect time just as I had completed my course work and qualifying exams and was beginning the research phase of my program.
When I graduated with a master’s degree in 2000, I knew I’d want to get a doctoral degree, though I didn’t know what program or when I would return. In the 10-year span before I came back to school, my wife, Lisa Macon, (dean, engineering, computer programming and technology) earned her Ph.D. Once she completed her degree, I knew it was my turn to earn mine.
I explored my options and looked at math education and other degrees. When I stumbled on modeling and simulation, as an applied mathematician, it really piqued my interest, as it is very interdisciplinary and would give me an opportunity to focus on applied math courses. I’ve always loved to learn new things, and the application of mathematics in current contexts of modeling and simulation seemed fascinating.
Coupled with that, the simulation field in Orlando was really booming, with numerous local companies supporting the simulation and training industry. Former President Bill Clinton had spoken about how Orlando was the hub of modeling simulation at the time. And, modeling and simulation is a growing and budding program for the University of Central Florida.
While I always wanted to teach and never envisioned leaving Valencia to work in industry, it was a good opportunity to go back and complete my educational goal.
The year before my sabbatical, I took a course in research methods. The main paper required for the course gave us the opportunity to do a literature review on a topic of interest in hopes of finding a dissertation topic. In my literature review, I explored the topic of game-based learning (also known as “serious games”). This was a robust topic that intrigued me that I knew would be relevant to my daily work of teaching mathematics at Valencia. I felt confident that I would have opportunities to infuse game-based learning into my classes.
Turns out, there are thousands of papers and more than 10 years’ worth of research on game- based learning in secondary and post-secondary education, and I was overwhelmed with the amount of research available. The beauty of the sabbatical was that it gave me time during the day I wouldn’t have had otherwise to really focus, read, comprehend and synthesize the massive amounts of research that had been done in the field.
Very candidly, it is difficult juggling a full-time job and the work of a Ph.D. program, while also trying to stay sane and enjoy time with my wonderful kids. My sabbatical proved to be a wonderful opportunity for me to feel like a full-time student for one semester and stay relatively sane.
Undoubtedly, the sabbatical experience will, indeed, contribute to and enhance my teaching and professional effectiveness as it has given me topics for projects and authentic learning activities that I can bring to all of my students in a wide variety of courses.
My attempt now is to extract from my research and course work the spirit of problem solving. It is in this way that I endeavor to provide to my students authentic learning activities, based on topics I’ve learned through my coursework and research.
After all, the true beauty of mathematics is in its application. The experiences in my Ph.D. program have given me the ability to bring conversations and explorations of current applications to my students in an effort to spark their interest in mathematics and many science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
While I’d heard a great deal about a wide variety of sabbatical experiences from many of my colleagues over the years, the main reason I would suggest a sabbatical leave to anyone is the ability you have to “customize” your experience — gaining the rejuvenation you need at whatever point in your career you happen to be.