Originally published May 9, 2016
By Lisa Y. Garibay
An educator with a passion for combining math and music has helped The University of Texas at El Paso continue its strong tradition with one of Texas’ most prestigious academic awards.
“Mathemusician” Larry Lesser, Ph.D., has become the 14th Piper Award recipient for UTEP.
The Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation in San Antonio established its award in 1958 to honor professors for their dedication to teaching and their community. Every May, the foundation selects 10 winners from among all two- and four-year colleges and universities in Texas.
The Piper Professor designation comes with a certificate, gold pin and $5,000 award.
Lesser, a professor of mathematical sciences, has been teaching at UTEP since 2004. He has been director of UTEP’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETaL) since 2014.
Maria C. Mariani, Ph.D., professor and chair of mathematical sciences, couldn’t be more thrilled that her colleague has become the second mathematical sciences faculty member to win a Piper Award.
“Dr. Larry Lesser is a wonderful instructor as witnessed by his absolutely stellar teaching evaluations, both by students and peers,” Mariani said. “He is also author of books and papers in top quality journals and co-author of the book ‘For All Practical Purposes,’ which is used in most universities as a textbook for math for liberal arts students [courses]. I believe Dr. Lesser is precisely the type of faculty member who deserves to be recognized by this award.”
Lesser compared the excitement of receiving the Piper Award to what he felt when he was bestowed a University of Texas System Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award in 2011.
“It is humbling to win what feels like a lifetime achievement award when I feel I still continue to grow as an educator, and I’m so grateful for the inspiration and support I’ve received over the years from my family as well as from my colleagues and students, especially at UTEP,” Lesser said. “Through my work as a professor and director of UTEP’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, I try to pay the inspiration forward.”
It’s a way of coming full circle for the educator, who was taught by Piper Professors at The University of Texas at Austin, where he received his graduate degrees, and Rice University, where he completed his bachelor’s degree.
Lesser’s teaching career is as rich as it is unique. He has taught mathematics, statistics, and mathematics education courses since 1988, including 25 graduate and 72 undergraduate classes, along with a variety of high school courses. His approach to teaching differently came out of firsthand experience in those classrooms, and having worked as a statistician outside of academia.
For his mathemusician efforts, Lesser won the National Museum of Mathematics’ Pi Day of the Century song contest. He set original lyrics about the famous number to the tune of Don McLean’s ‘70s hit “American Pie” and named it, appropriately, “American Pi.” (Watch a video of Lesser explaining the significance of the number and performing his song here.)
Upon hearing of his latest achievement, Lesser said that a friend suggested he now be referred to as “The Pi’d Piper.”
Dean of the College of Science Robert Kirken, Ph.D., said the college was extremely pleased about Lesser’s selection.
“There is no question that he is highly deserving of this honor, as he has demonstrated a longstanding commitment to mathematics education, student success, and faculty and instructor development in teaching,” Kirken said.
The dean noted that in his position with CETaL, the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, Lesser leads numerous efforts to improve instructional design and implementation across the campus. He is responsible for presenting the center’s Sun Conference on teaching and learning as well as its Fall Instructor Retreat each year.
“This recognition follows his previous receipt of a University of Texas System Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award, and highlights his sustained commitment and service in this area,” Kirken added. “[The award] supports outstanding achievement in and dedication to the teaching profession – characteristics that Dr. Lesser clearly demonstrates.”
UTEP’s previous Piper winners include faculty from philosophy, biological sciences, electrical engineering, English, economics and finance, teacher education, political science, metallurgical and materials engineering, and chemistry. Lesser is the second winner from mathematical sciences.