Faculty Profile: Wilbur Stiles, Professor of Mathematics

Retired Professor Looks Back on Long Career, Great Improvements

Dr. Wilbur Stiles graduated from Lehigh University in 1954 with a B.S. in Civil Engineering and a lieutenant's commission in the United States Air Force. He spent the next year in the USAF learning to fly, and the following three years in the USAF as an instructor pilot teaching AF officers how to fly single engine jet aircrafts. He married Miss Evalyn Long in June 1956; their first son was born in May 1959. He entered Georgia Tech, one month after his son's birth, to work on a second undergraduate degree in Mathematics. Reflecting on his choice, he said, "I got hooked on functional analysis." He says of math, "It was the only thing I liked to do," so he just kept going. After completing his B.S. the following spring, he stayed on at Georgia Tech, working through a Master's degree as well as earning his Ph.D. in Mathematics in spring 1965. He said simply, "I had no intention of getting a Ph.D. I enjoyed it so much I decided to keep going." During that time, his second son was born (in the fall of 1962).

Hired by the FSU Math Department in fall 1965, Stiles came in as a functional analyst. He was a regular tenured faculty member, with teaching and research assignments, until fall 1994, during which he served as the major professor for two successful doctoral students. He spoke fondly of both students and colleagues, and it's clear that he was deeply involved in the department, at all levels, throughout his 46 years at FSU. He assumed role of Director of Basic Mathematics position in the fall of 1994, during the second year of Dr. Chris Hunter's six-year tenure as department Chair. Though his original DBM duties included a bevy of tasks - supervising a group of six basic math faculty known as 'The Six,' coordinating and supervising course offerings and course instruction in all the first-year basic math courses, teaching courses, and providing academic advising - he would soon become involved in adoption of a new technology system which would forever change the instruction of Basic Mathematics.

In 1998, the FSU Provost, Dr. Larry Abele, learned that the Virginia Tech Math department was having great success with their new Math Emporium. He asked Stiles to look into the work at VT and consider the possibility of setting up a similar emporium at FSU. Stiles, along with Annette Blackwelder, talked to the VT math chair about the emporium, as well as contacting math textbook publishers to learn about their computerized teaching material. Stiles spoke glowingly of all the members of the Basic Math program: "I can't say enough good stuff about Annette. She was just terrific...knowledgeable, dependable." At that time, FSU's Basic Math program was busy with the daily work of teaching, testing, and grading the majority of the freshmen coming into FSU. Stiles said, "When I first took the job, we used to give paper tests. It was a big deal." There were freshman math courses, requiring countless hours of organizing tests and grading. "We got these big lecture rooms or whatever we could find," he said. "Just about everybody coming in had to take 1102."

"I did something I liked to do, and I'm glad I did it. If you love it, do it." Dr Wilbur Stiles

After much dissatisfying searching, they found Dr. John Orr of the University of Nebraska, who had produced test-delivery software that seemed ideal. Stiles said, "They'd written a program that would deliver tests.... I knew right away when I saw it that that was just what I was looking for." So they came up with a plan to use the software delivery system, but create their own exams for the department, investing much time and energy into the well being of the program. Stiles informed the FSU administration of plans to use Orr's software, in tandem with their own test questions, to computerize the basic math courses at FSU, assuring the administration that this new program would improve students' grades as well as reduce TA workloads. The administration liked his plan so much that they were willing to computerize the four classrooms on the bottom floor of HTL, allowing the department to use those rooms for what Stiles called Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI). Thinking back to the initial transition to CAI, Stiles recalled, "There were all kinds of possibilities. It was really good.... As things developed we got more computers and we expanded."

The FSU administration fully supported development of the CAI program, providing grants each year for several years to develop test questions and other important CAI material. And the change they had anticipated came. "When we went to CAI, the recitation was in the computer lab. That was a good thing; they could work problems and have them graded and the instructor could come back and tell them why they got it wrong. It was just terrific."

Dean Foss and Provost Abele were so pleased with the results of the new program that those working with the Basic Mathematics programs were awarded the FSU President's Technology Award for our CAI program. Dr. Stiles, while happy to have ushered in this new method of instruction, remains humble about the whole process, saying only, "They needed somebody to do the job, and I'd been teaching for 30 years."

Dr. Stiles retired in May 2011 after working forty-six years at FSU. He's very optimistic about the growth in the department, as well as new programs and course offerings. He considers his major accomplishments at FSU to be setting up the CAI program, writing many computer programs to streamline and improve Basic Math activities, writing (free) on-line texts for precalculus algebra and trigonometry, and increasing the Basic Math faculty from six people to nine people. His clear, smart advice for those considering pursuing a scholarly life in math is this: "I did something I liked to do, and I'm glad I did it. If you love it, do it."