Retiree Spotlight: Thank you, Benjamin Collins

Ben Collins, a professor in mathematics, will be retiring from UW-Platteville after 20 years at the university.

Collins earned a BA degree in both mathematics and philosophy from Central College in Pelia, Iowa and completed his master’s degree in mathematics at Michigan-Ann Arbor.

From there he began teaching at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota.

He earned his PhD in mathematics from UW-Madison and taught at Midland Lutheran College in Fremont, Nebraska before coming to Platteville in 2000.

While at Platteville, Collins has taught math courses ranging from College Algebra to the higher-level courses like Abstract Algebra.

How long have you been involved in higher-level education?

“All of my life. I went directly from my undergraduate degree to grad school in Michigan, then taught at St. John’s, then back to graduate school, then Midland, then UW-Platteville. So, I really have never known anything but the academy.”

How did you become interested in the field in which you taught?

“I have always been interested in the way that mathematical ideas can be interconnected in strange and unexpected ways. Take for example, the Fibonacci numbers. The idea seems so simple. You start a sequence with F1 = 1 and F2 = 1, then get the next number by adding the previous two:

Seems trivial, right? But the Fibonacci numbers turn up in all sorts of crazy mathematical places.

My absolute favorite Fibonacci fact is Binet’s formula, named for French mathematician Jacques Philippe Marie Binet.
F_n=1/√5 (((1+√5)/2)^n-((1-√5)/2)^n )

You look at that formula, and you think, ‘No way does that expression even turn out to be an integer!’

But it is, and it is equal to the nth Fibonacci number for every value of n.

Mathematics is cool.”

How did you become interested in teaching?

“When I went to the University of Michigan, I was assigned to be a teaching assistant to help pay for graduate school. I found that I liked working with students, and I liked helping them work out their problems with mathematics. I have enjoyed it for almost 35 years.”

What are some fond memories, if you would be willing to share, of your time as a college instructor?

“One really great thing is when students come to me after a class is over – sometimes the next semester, sometimes years later – and tell me how much they appreciated what they learned in my class. Sometimes it’s not obvious in the moment that what I’m doing is making a difference. But, when a student can look back and say, yes, it was a valuable experience, that means a lot.”

Do you have advice to share with students?

“Remember that your time here is about learning, not about grades. It’s easy to get focused on whether you are going to get a B-minus or a C-plus. But the more important thing is how it all fits together, and whether you are learning to think in a way that’s going to help you be successful in your chosen career.”

Do you have any final words for the university?

“Good luck. Things are very uncertain as to exactly what fall semester is going to look like. Even once we get through the short-term crisis, the university faces a lot of obstacles, having to do with declining enrollment and the subsequent financial challenges. I’m sorry that I won’t be around to help solve those problems, but I trust that the university has some very good people in place to work on them. It will take a concerted effort from everyone to get through the next few years.”

Do you have any comments to add about your experience at UW-Platteville, or as a teacher in general?

“I will miss the math department at UW-Platteville. I maintain that it is the best math department in the state, and no one will convince me otherwise. I shall miss teaching, but I am confident that the students at UW-Platteville are in very good hands.”
After amassing 35 years in high level education, Collins plans to transition into the role of technical solutions engineer for the Verona-based Epic Systems.