Anna Spagnuolo, Oakland University professor of mathematics and chair of the department of mathematics and statistics, was named as one of three distinguished professors by the Michigan Association of State Universities for 2023.

Anna Spagnuolo, Oakland University professor of mathematics and chair of the department of mathematics and statistics, was named as one of three distinguished professors by the Michigan Association of State Universities for 2023.

Photo provided by Oakland University

Macomb Township resident named distinguished professor

By: Dean Vaglia | Macomb Chronicle | Published May 11, 2023


MACOMB TOWNSHIP — To be one of the best in one’s field is an accomplishment, and every year, the Michigan Association of State Universities looks around the state to find the best professors across Michigan’s 15 public universities.

For 2023, MASU turned its eye to Oakland University and named Anna Spagnuolo as one of three most distinguished professors in Michigan.

“It’s very humbling, and it’s a great honor for the recognition,” Spagnuolo said.

Currently the chair of OU’s department of mathematics and statistics and a professor of mathematics, Spagnuolo’s road to a career teaching math began in elementary school.

“It was exciting to have great teachers, and they would ask wonderful questions and stimulate the class with some fun questions with math involved,” Spagnuolo said.

Having grown up in Warren before moving to Macomb Township at age 10, Spagnuolo opted to attend OU for her undergraduate degree due to its proximity. It took a few years before she became a mathematics major. She then went to Purdue University for her doctorate and began teaching at Texas A&M.

“I liked it (in Texas), but I missed my family,” Spagnuolo said. “That’s the reason I wanted to come back to Oakland, and then they hired me.”

Spagnuolo came back to Michigan and began teaching at OU in 2000, moving back into Macomb Township as well. A good deal of Spagnuolo’s research with mathematics involves building models to simulate a wide variety of issues in order to uncover their solutions. Spagnuolo’s mathematical models have been used to help study cholera in the human intestine, to help epidemiologists study diseases and to help prepare for hurricanes by predicting storm surges.

But research is not all Spagnuolo does. Being a math professor puts her in frequent contact with OU’s undergraduate students, and that led Spagnuolo to overhaul the university’s infamously challenging undergraduate math program.

“I had a good rapport with the students always and kept my office hours open, and I would notice them grow,” Spagnuolo said. “Students would come to my office, and I would put (the students) at the whiteboard, and they would put the questions up there and they would be solving (the problems) themselves, and I would have them talk it out.”

As Spagnuolo kept operating her office hours in this fashion, she noticed more students coming to her for help. Seeing how this approach helped her students, Spagnuolo established a math help center when she became the chair of the department.

Staffed by graduate students and professors on weekdays from 9-to-5, the center allows students an all-hours place to bring math questions and to get help. Students are also allowed to sit in the center and work through problems on their own, coming to the grad students and professors for help as needed.

“If they can’t make one professor’s office hours, they can go to someone else and get the help,” Spagnuolo said. “It’s been amazing.”

Lower-level classes have also been restructured, with students now attending both a lecture and then going to a workshop in order to ensure they understand the material. Spagnuolo has noticed an overall improvement in student performance since the new structure was put in place.

“In calculus, they’re doing better in the fall than what we’ve seen in a long time,” Spagnuolo said. “When I first created the help center and I was telling students about it, I had people walking out with me and trying to thank me for it. They were saying they were getting an F before that and then they were leaving with a B+ or an A.”

Spagnuolo’s work helping students succeed extends to those beyond the OU campus as well. OU has partnered with Math Corps since 2020 to help middle school students in the Pontiac area improve their math skills. In 2022, Math Corps seventh graders raised their median test scores from 42.5% to 90%, and eighth graders raised their median scores from 32.5% to 87.5%.

With the restructured undergraduate program in place, the main problem for Spagnuolo and the math department now is getting students who are used to the remote schooling environment into the rhythm of on-campus lectures. Spagnuolo sees this challenge as one she’ll still be at the department to tackle, and she’s ready to do what it takes to help students succeed.

“I see my future at Oakland (in the) long-term and even after retirement (focused) toward the effort of improving student success and giving students a place to go so they can ask questions and always being open to helping at any point,” Spagnuolo said. “I see that continuing, and even after I retire, that’s my plan. … I’d love to be part of any initiative to help students succeed.”