VANCOUVER – David Slavit has been named a Boeing Distinguished Professor in the Washington State University College of Education (COE).
Slavit, a mathematics education expert at WSU Vancouver, thinks math lessons should be conversations focused on students’ ideas – an approach that prepares them for real-world, on-the-job situations.
The five-year Boeing appointment goes to a researcher working in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics education (STEM). It comes with $50,000 in research funds, some of which will be used to develop a STEM partnership involving education faculty on all WSU campuses.
“STEM education is a priority at our college, and we’re delighted to have a mathematics educator of David’s stature take a leading role,” said A.G. Rud, dean of the COE. “We hope to ultimately create a STEM education center that will help teachers prepare their students for exciting careers – and help science and technology businesses find the expert employees they need.”
Slavit also will use the award to support his research into how students learn and how teachers can help them. He would like schools to get away from teaching math as a sequential set of facts and skills that need to be mastered.
“Mathematics classes should be full of conjectures and uncertainty,” he said. “Math in our world is constantly changing and definitely not linear. What is probably most needed is for teachers to be encouraged to have genuine mathematical conversations with their learners. And students want this.”
As an example, Slavit described a lesson in which students are learning to multiply decimals:
“One student notices that ‘When you multiply a decimal number by 10, all I have to do is move the decimal one place to the right.’ The teacher might reply, ‘Yes, that’s the rule. You can always do that.’ In fact, many teachers will simply tell students this ‘rule’ at the beginning of the lesson and have students practice numerous such calculations.
“On the other hand, a teacher interested in having a mathematical conversation with her students might ask, ‘So how do you know this? Will that always work? What do the rest of you think? Can you explain this using a picture? What if we multiply by 100? What other rules can you tell me?’ ”
Slavit has been a faculty member in WSU’s Department of Teaching and Learning, as well as the Department of Mathematics, since 1994. He has been awarded more than $4 million in federal and state research grants, often collaborating with other researchers inside and outside the university.
Much of that work focuses on professional development for mathematics and science teachers. Most recently, he helped design a middle level mathematics endorsement program, which is offered on all four campuses.
Slavit received his Ph.D. in mathematics education from the University of Delaware. One of his goals is development of a STEM education doctorate at WSU.

The Boeing Co. endows 11 distinguished professorships at WSU, including two within the College of Education.