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Solving Mysteries Through Research

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Associate professor Keith Leatham feels extremely blessed that he has been able to take his curiosity about and passion for mathematics teaching and learning and turn it into a job.

“For the most part, research is self-motivating,” Leatham said. “You have this drive to know answers to questions, and research is the means to answering those questions. You can just keep asking questions and digging deeper forever.”

After teaching math in high school, Leatham returned to school himself and received his master’s degree in mathematics education in 1997. It was then that the idea of doing research sparked his interest.

“I really liked to think about what was going on in my students’ heads. It really intrigued me,” Leatham said. “I had all these questions about my own practices as a teacher and how what I was doing was making a difference or influencing what they were able to accomplish.”

After discovering that a PhD in mathematics education would allow him to both teach mathematics and spend considerable time conducting research that could answer these kinds of questions, he pursued a doctoral degree and graduated from the University of Georgia in 2002.

“I get paid to ask and answer these questions that I care about so much,” Leatham said. “I find the work itself to be rewarding. I feel really lucky.”

One of Leatham’s articles—published in 2014, titled “The case of the Case of Benny: Elucidating the influence of a landmark study in mathematics education”—examines the use of literary citations: how often they are used, how they are used, and who they are used by. Beginning in 2011, Leatham worked alongside graduate student Tyler Winiecke (who was then an undergraduate) to accomplish this research.

Using Google Scholar, Leatham and Winiecke identified those who had cited a monumental research paper in mathematics education, ‘The Case of Benny,” which was published in 1974. They then analyzed those citations to understand how the paper had influenced the field of mathematics education over the last 40 years.

“It gives the reader a historical perspective to understand the article and its significance in a way that would be really hard to understand otherwise,” Leatham said.

An interview about the article and its innovative methodology was featured on This podcast can be found here.