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Sept. 25, 2000

A Calculating Professor

Do professors have a sense of humor? Listen to Calvin professor Robert Keeley (left) describe the writing of his latest textbook.

“Sitting in an office with no windows all summer writing a math book is not as much fun as it sounds,” he says with a wry smile.

Which is why it's no surprise that the precalculus textbook Keeley wrote during that summer of 1997 (with Hope professors Todd Swanson and Janet Anderson) is filled with real-life examples and, yes, even humor, despite the humorless title “Precalculus: A Study of Functions and Their Applications.”

The new text’s point of departure from other precalculus books is its treatment of mathematical functions.

“We didn’t want series of disconnected functions,” said Keeley.

“Precalculus: A Study of Functions and Their Applications” begins by explaining all of the basic functions and their relationships to each another. Once the students have these functions on their mathematical palettes, they are free to play and have fun with the material -- an attitude that the authors hope will be felt by the students who use the book.

“We wanted a text," says Keeley, "that students could actually read.”

The real hook, though, is the text’s true-to-life study problems. For instance, they used Swanson’s actual utility bills for certain problems and utilized linear function to find the dimensions of a life-sized Barbie doll -- focusing on the head and feet, of course.

The book was based on a previous award-winning workbook, published in 1997, called “Projects for Precalculus.” Anderson, Keeley and Swanson wrote the 1997 text after receiving a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

“Projects for Precalculus” went on to win an award at the Innovative Programs Using Technology competition and also earned a feature “Exemplary Programs in Introductory College Mathematics,” published by the Mathematical Association of America.

Harcourt College Publishers then approached the team about expanding their effort into a full-sized text, which led to marathon writing sessions to complete a much larger book in less time than it took to write the original shorter “Projects for Precalculus.” Keeley refers to their latest work as “how I spent my vacations for the last two years.”

Keeley dabbles in both music and drama in addition to teaching courses in educational psychology and the teaching of religion in elementary schools as a member of the Calvin Education Department. He wrote two Christmas plays for children with his wife. The plays are meant to teach kids about Christmas is a way that is light-hearted but also gives them (and adults) something to think about. Keeley plays guitar and leads worship in his church in Holland and, occasionally, for Calvin’s Chapel services.

Before coming to Calvin he taught middle and high school math for 20 years, most recently at Holland Christian High School. In fact, it was his teaching at Holland Christian which led to his 1991 meeting with the two Hope professors. They formed a team that has now published two innovative works together and has plans for a third.

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Contact Phil de Haan.