Math professor Arnie Pizer will retire at the end of the academic year after more than 30 years at UR. Pizer has been associate chairman of the math department since 1988, and he developed the WeBWork system that many UR students and students across the country still use.
Pizer arrived at UR in 1976 after receiving his B.A. and Ph.D. from Yale University. He spent two years at UCLA and three at Brandeis before getting hired as an Assistant Professor at UR. His specialty is algebraic number theory, which deals with the properties of integers. He is fascinated by the strange qualities of these integers.
“[These integers] include some of the oldest and most difficult problems in mathematics,” he said.
Pizer has taught a majority of the math courses that UR has to offer, and a number of advanced number theory courses at the graduate level. He said that if he had to choose a favorite, it would be MTH 237, a course on Galois Theory.
“This course is one of our most difficult undergraduate courses, but the material is very interesting,” he said. “The students who sign up for this course are usually very talented and very interested in the material.”
One of Pizer’s major contributions has been his development of the WeBWorK system, an interactive online program that allows students to do their mathematical and scientific homework over the web. The idea came around in 1995, when Professor Mike Gage was introduced to a computer homework system called CAPA. Gage thought that the program could be improved and wrote a “front end” for the program that made it easier for teachers to write mathematical problems. However, Pizer saw that there was still work to be done.
“In our eyes, CAPA had many other shortcomings, and we thought we could do better taking advantage of the then new web browsers,” Pizer said. “So we wrote a back end to Mike’s front end and a way of presenting problems to students over the web and the result was the initial version of WeBWorK.”
When WeBWorK was used for the first time, Pizer was surprised by the results.
“I used WeBWorK for the first time in teaching MTH 140A, and the 19 students in the class actually liked it,” he said. “Its use spread from there.”
Today the program is used by tens of thousands of students at UR and hundreds of other institutions in the U.S. and abroad. The math department has received numerous grants from the National Science Foundation that have helped employ UR students to write code for the program.
“WeBWorK today is a much different, and we hope improved, product from its 1996 original version,” Pizer said.
Pizer plans to be active in retirement, partaking in skiing and sailing in. Pizer will also continue doing research in math and working with Gage to enhance WeBWorK, but he is done teaching.
Pizer is happy with the accomplishments and direction of the math department.
“Over the last ten years or so, all the professors in the math department have worked hard to enhance the program for undergraduates,” he said. “We can all be proud that at Rochester the percentage of students who take honors courses in mathematics and the percentage of students who major in mathematics are very high compared to national averages. Obviously this says something about the quality of Rochester undergraduates, but it also says something about the quality of the mathematics program at Rochester.”Wrobel is a member of the class of 2010.