The Power of Math: A Q&A with STEM Educator Dennis DeBay
Dennis DeBay, PhD, in the ThinqStudio podcasting studio, a space where conversations about education and innovation can be amplified to reach broader audiences.

The Power of Math: A Q&A with STEM Educator Dennis DeBay

September 1, 2023

It’s back-to-school time, which makes us excited to stock up on pencils and notebooks. What does this time conjure for you?  

Oh, it’s exactly the same. It never quite goes away. There are so many opportunities to think about all the possibilities that are going to happen throughout this upcoming year—and that brings a lot of nerves, a lot of anxiety, and a lot of excitement as well.  

Many of the people you’re working with are both students and educators, as they work in classrooms to pursue teaching degrees. Does that increase the pressure at the start of the academic year?  

It’s exciting. Because I’ve always been a teacher, that’s a big part of my identity and vocation. I consider myself to be a learner and a teacher. Being able to explore the possibilities of what that looks like for my students is a really exciting experience. It allows me to think about what are the pedagogies that I need to be truthful to, so that my students see me practicing what I preach.  

Can you tell me more about that?  

One of the strategic plan goals here at CU Denver is to become an equity-serving institution. In order to do that, we need to take a look at our practices and pedagogies to support our students. Our students come in with vastly different experiences, vastly different ideas of what it means to learn in higher ed. I’m working with people that want to become teachers and we need to think about this opportunity. We need to think about how we bring learner’s worlds into our content. That is part of the work with ThinqStudio.  

What is ThinqStudio? 

ThinqStudio is a group of faculty from around campus that, through a fellowship, get an opportunity to take some time and look at big issues. They ask, “What can I do? Is there an event I can hold, a book club, things that can push what that looks like?” We’ve had events on playful pedagogy. Let’s go out and play frisbee. Is there a way to put a jungle gym in the middle of campus? How can we create opportunities for play?  

Another role you have is being a site professor. What does that mean?  

CU Denver students intern for several semesters in classrooms, in the schools. As a site professor, my role is to be a liaison between the university and what these student teachers are doing in the school. I am able to help with out with coursework. I can help with questions, like “What are the things that I need to do in my internship to be successful so that I can move on to the next internship, or can I move on to be a professor?” I’m there once a week for an entire day.  

So, is it an additional level of support to ensure that these learners are successful at their internships? Yes, and we hold a class where we come together, and we debrief on what happened each week. How did it go? Or how do we bring students’ worlds into our content? And I have my students do a reflections blog that they share. What’s really fun about that is they can reflect, and they can think about all the criteria that they need to graduate and to get their license—but they can also have fun with it.   

Your work often explores intersections between math, wonder, and equity. What is an example of how that happens?  

The way that I think about it is that math isn’t necessarily just a subject to be learned. I think it’s a really powerful tool to understand what’s happening in the world around us… We can do that if we’re able to have more folks engaged in mathematics in a way that they feel good. There are a bunch of different ways for us to think about doing that. We should have this approach where we shouldn’t be focusing on who got the right answer. I want to hear about how they reasoned through it, saying: “You didn’t get the right answer, but what was really cool was the way that you reasoned your way through that.” If we make that move, it allows for students to be much more comfortable.