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Fall 2008
Beloved Math Professor’s Legacy Lives On
By Rolando Garcia
Natural Sciences and Mathematics

To the federal government’s top scientists, he was the go-to-guy for the most perplexing mathematical dilemmas. To countless University of Houston students who dreaded their math courses, he was a wise and thought-provoking educator who taught them they did not have to fear numbers.

For 25 years, Schatz taught, mentored and inspired his students at UH. His knack for making math accessible and engaging to students who thought they hated math made Schatz one of the university’s most beloved faculty members.

Now, through the generosity of Schatz’ children, his legacy will continue to support and encourage the students he was so devoted to. The Joseph Schatz Scholarship for Non-traditional Mathematics Students, established this year, will help UH math majors who are returning to school midlife or are the first in their families to go to college.

Schatz, a longtime math professor, died last year at the age of 83.

His sympathy for nontraditional students – such as the high-school dropout trying to earn a college degree or the middle-aged homemaker going back to school – was due in no small part to his own unlikely story.

Schatz grew up in the Jewish ghetto of Philadelphia where his parents ran a small candy and drug store. Schatz got a job after high school and had no intention of ever going to college until he was drafted by the Army during World War II, said Joseph’s son Bruce.

Schatz’s scores on military exams revealed an outstanding aptitude for math, so the Army sent him to Virginia Tech University to take some engineering courses. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in math from Brown University.

Before arriving at UH in 1972, he spent 15 years as an applied mathematician at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. Schatz excelled as a general purpose problem-solver, bringing fresh mathematical perspective to the most intractable engineering problems that had stumped the government’s top scientists.

One such quandary was designing a space platform that was both safe and affordable. Schatz spent a year re-examining all the mathematics underlying the project, reproving the theorems with different assumptions. In the end, he proved the cheap solution was also a safe one.

As a professor, Schatz taught his students to challenge assumptions, sometimes using a Socratic teaching style to encourage problem-solving and critical thinking.

"It changed the way I looked at the world entirely," said Jon Doyle, a 1974 UH graduate and a former student of Schatz.

Doyle was good with numbers, but under Schatz’s tutelage, he delved far deeper, exploring the problems underlying mathematical theorems. Doyle was not a traditional college student. He dropped out of high school before earning a GED and attended a community college before enrolling at UH.

But Schatz saw potential and took an interest in Doyle, giving him books to read and increasingly difficult math problems to solve. He helped Doyle go beyond technique to understand the foundations of mathematical theories.

"Before, I was good at mental arithmetic, but (under Schatz) I started to see things differently and it changed the direction of my life," said Doyle, who later earned a Ph.D. in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He now teaches at North Carolina State University.

Schatz’s accessible teaching style and emphasis on problem-solving over technique made him popular with students. He helped many nontraditional students, especially middle-aged women who struggled with math after a long hiatus from school, overcome their fear of numbers.

"He wanted to teach people who were scared of math that math is just common sense," Bruce Schatz said.

Contributions to further build the Schatz scholarship endowment are welcome. For more information please contact Rhonda Thompson at 713-743-4023 or rkthompson@uh.edu.
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