Larry Foster did not start out wanting to be a professor. Dreams of studying language and philosophy drove him through college until he found himself sitting in a calculus class one day. Nine years later, he woke up with a Ph.D. in mathematics.
“Math was a lotta fun,” he grins, his enthusiasm enough to make even those wary of math feel relaxed. It soon becomes apparent how a man who teaches classes such as Applied Calculus and Communicating Mathematical Ideas (the titles alone enough to make the bravest scholar groan), could be voted one of UAA’s most popular professors.
Foster kicked off his teaching career at the University of Alabama, before moving on to work at the Marshall Space Flight Center doing mechanical engineering. He currently holds two Masters degrees in Civil and Mechanical Engineering – knowledge he brought with him when he returned to Alaska in 1970. Foster came to the Great North to reunite with family and to pursue civil engineering, but that didn’t stick for long; he soon found an ad in the local paper calling for a UAA professor for one year. The rest is, as they say, history.
“The key to math? Math is how you understand the universe,” Foster says dramatically, a gleam in his eye. “A lecture for me without applications is boring.”
And applications do seem to be the secret to Foster’s success. He uses his engineering background to make math relatable to real-life situations, a technique his students find incredibly helpful.
“I think it’s excellent,” says Nathaniel Cox, a Civil Engineering major and a student in Foster’s Calculus III class. “I can’t find anyone who doesn’t like him.”
Foster is a firm believer that if you cannot connect with students, you cannot effectively teach. He continually strives to find techniques that form that connection and enrich the learning process.
“When I walk into class I always remember what it’s like to be a student,” Foster says, his eyes far away as he recalls his own days of nervous questions and sweat-soaked tests. “Oh! And your students must not be afraid of you!”
He starts chuckling. “You think anyone could be afraid of me?”
It does seem impossible. Foster exudes warmth and gusto, constantly using “fun” to describe his work and bubbling at the chance to share his passion of numbers with students he has never met before, and who are not even in his classes – but that isn’t unusual for this professor.
“Probably half the students that come in are not mine,” Foster states matter-of-factly. His door is always open, unless he is helping someone else, and Foster quite often finds himself helping a chemistry or engineering student who have heard of his energy and came peering into his door, looking for a helping hand. Foster is always ready to do just that.
When asked if there are any downsides to his job, Foster’s office is unusually quiet. The professor sits motionless for a few seconds, searching his brain for anything he doesn’t like.
“Only one. Cleaning my office.” He flashes a grin, his spark returning at full speed. “I can’t believe that I am this lucky.”
Neither can most mathematics students. Math is a tricky enough subject for those who love it, but for those many who shudder at numbers and functions, perhaps this professor can provide some relief. Foster can make any student feel welcome, and math doesn’t seem so terrible from his peppy point-of-view.
“Everyone gets to do one noble thing in life,” Foster smiles satisfactorily. “I get to be a teacher.”