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Washington State University
CAS Connect March 2015

In Motion: Tom Gazzola masters puzzle of teaching and more

Do you remember learning about the intermediate value theorem?

If your answer is no, chances are you didn’t take pre-calculus with Thomas Gazzola, a mathematics instructor at WSU Vancouver.

Unlike most college professors, Gazzola introduces the theorem with a conceptual puzzle about a portly monk’s insatiable craving for pickled radishes.

“I try to present math concepts as puzzles and games as opposed to assignments and tasks,” he said. “New things are easier to learn if they are enjoyable. And for me, there is nothing more enjoyable than solving a puzzle.”

 Thomas Gazzola, who is framed between the mathematical symbol Pi and a William Shakespeare statuette
Words count as much as math when it comes to solving puzzles, says Thomas Gazzola, who is framed between the mathematical symbol Pi and a William Shakespeare statuette.

Gazzola said he has been solving puzzles as far back as he can remember. His interest became a competitive passion 10 years ago when he joined the National Puzzlers League, a group of dedicated puzzlers led by Will Shortz, the crossword puzzle editor for the New York Times.

“A puzzle is a glimpse into the intricacies of another person’s brain,” he said. “There is a strong sense of accomplishment in finding meaning buried in a jumble of seemingly disparate and random elements.”

Recently, Gazzola and a team of 40 puzzle solvers from around the nation converged at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Cambridge to compete in the MIT Mystery Hunt, one of the world’s oldest and most complex puzzle hunts.

Tom Gazzola with coin award
Gazzola displays his winning “Nautilodestone” coin from the MIT Mystery Hunt.

The challenge? Work around the clock over three days to be the first team to solve 180 puzzles—including anagrams, crosswords, cryptograms, scavenger hunts and multimedia puzzles. About 1,000 people competed for the prize; Gazzola’s team won.

“It was really exhilarating,” Gazzola said. “Among the greatest pleasures for me in life is solving puzzles with other people. I just find the ways that multiple peoples’ brains work together to be fascinating.”

As winners of this year’s MIT Mystery Hunt, Gazzola’s team is charged with choosing the theme and creating all the puzzles for next year’s challenge. They’re already brainstorming ideas.

A passion for teaching

Gazzola’s teaching career spans four decades and includes stints at the elementary, middle, high school, and college levels.

“A lot of people are surprised when I tell them I have actually taught English more than math in my life,” he said. “At the end of the day, I just love solving problems and there is no place I would rather be than in the classroom helping students.”

Tom Gazzola doing mathematics at chalkboard
Gazzola is a whiz with numbers, but he taught English for most of his career.

Gazzola currently teaches pre-calculus, calculus for life sciences, and math for non-majors.

“I enjoy the excitement he brings to each class. He always has a fun story to help you remember the content or something interesting to peak your interest in the lecture,” said Christina Dubry, a biology major who took two classes with Gazzola last fall.

“He is always enthusiastic when he is teaching. Some teachers seem to get bored teaching the same material semester after semester, but Tom still gets excited. His excitement is contagious.”

–By Will Ferguson

Snapshot: Department of Mathematics

The Department of Mathematics provides extensive general education courses for the entire undergraduate student body and offers degree programs from undergraduate to doctoral levels.

Its nationally and internationally recognized faculty and researchers work at the forefront of global issues, ranging from number theory to population ecology. They collaborate with colleagues across the University to generate research publications and external funding.

Math students studying, math books stacked in foreground

A calculus student at work.

Math proficiency is a graduation requirement, and the department teaches more undergraduate student credit hours than any other department at WSU. The Math Learning Center (MLC) offers free tutor-assisted help to all WSU students. Calculated Success, a new, two-week, summer program, prepares incoming students for success in their first math class at WSU through one-on-one work with a mathematics instructor.

The new Consortium for Interdisciplinary Statistical Education and Research (CISER) will train WSU graduate students and faculty in statistical methods and foster nationally competitive collaborative research. Seminars, collaborative research, and colloquiums keep the department vibrant with the sharing of information between faculty and students.

Areas of specialization within the math department include mathematical modeling, optimization, statistics, mathematics education, numerical analysis, and geometric measure theory.

Degrees Offered

  • Bachelor of Science
    • Actuarial Science
    • Applied Mathematics
    • Theoretical Mathematics
    • Secondary Mathematics Teaching
  • Minors
    • Mathematics
    • Statistics
  • Master of Science
    • Mathematics
    • Computational Finance
    • Statistics
  • PhD in Mathematics
Math by the numbers
  • Faculty: 38
  • Instructors: 18
  • Graduate students: 85
  • Total student credit hours: 35,360