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New Faces: Bryan Bornholdt

In his classroom, Bryan Bornholdt explains how to graph functions by using mathematical limits. In his life, the Honors College mathematics professor demonstrates how to recognize personal limits, and then defy them.

People  |  Nov 2, 2015  |  By Daniel Coyle

An avid rock climber, Bryan Bornholdt joins the staff at the Honors College. (Aaron Mayes/UNLV Photo Services)

Rock Climber. Unicyclist. Juggler. Mathematician. Professor.

It’s uncommon to see these five characteristics on one CV, but then Bryan Bornholdt, the new assistant professor in residence in the Honors College, is unusual in many ways. His unique approach to teaching mathematics has already made a difference in the lives of UNLV students. And he’s just getting started.

Why UNLV?

Two words: Honors College. Dean (Marta) Meana’s leadership and vision inspired me. This place is not merely about edgy, hardcore academics; the faculty and staff really have the intellectual and personal growth of our diverse group of students in mind. I couldn’t ask for a better fit with my teaching philosophy.  

Plus, it didn’t hurt that campus is 30 minutes away from world-class rock climbing at Red Rock Canyon!

Where did you grow up?

Kansas. As you might expect, leaving my conservative hometown to attend a small liberal arts college (Phillips University in Enid, Oklahoma) absolutely changed my life. I built friendships with students and professors from around the world. I learned completely different ways of thinking and living.

That’s why I appreciate being part of a campus with such rich diversity. For years, I’ve seen myself as a member of a global community, and UNLV embodies that ideal.

What inspired you to get into your field?

Driven by my desire to make a positive contribution in the lives of others, I initially went to school to study religion. But I kept taking advanced math courses. Mathematics fascinated me. My calculus professor convinced me that I could meaningfully contribute to the world by helping people learn the often-intimidating subject of mathematics.

What are the biggest misconceptions about your field?

I heard it again from someone yesterday: after learning what I teach, they quipped, “Oh, so you’re a genius.”  While there are certainly prodigies in my field, I’m not one of them. Math has this mystique that it’s for the “elite,” which is unfortunate. It’s not for geniuses; it’s for everyone. Success in mathematics is more about hard work and belief in oneself.

Another common misconception with students is that mathematics has no real-world relevance for them. They always ask, “When will I ever use this?” My answer: Math is a context in which we can refine our thinking and reasoning. Without exercising our minds, we dull our ability to make real-world decisions based on sound reasoning and, instead, rely more on impulsive feelings. Math cultivates high-level logic alongside down-to-earth reasoning like, “Bornholdt, even though you want this car, you cannot afford it. Look at the numbers.”

Not to mention the fact that virtually every professional field, from entertainment to health care to taxicab rates, depends on specialized calculations. Math is everywhere.

What’s the biggest challenge in your field?

Nationally, we have a crisis with mathematics. Students don’t want to learn it, and we don’t know how to teach it. Our country is behind the curve. We’re mathematically illiterate. And we’re drowning in marketing messages that exploit our inability to look at numbers and make reasonable decisions. 

So as math educators, our biggest challenge is selling the value of learning math to every student from every major. People dislike math because they don’t think they are good at it. Confronting a student’s perceived inability, helping them break through mental barriers, instilling confidence in their reasoning — that is what math instructors ought to be doing.

Who was your favorite professor and why?

Ken Klopfenstien, a mathematics professor at Colorado State University. In class, he was entertaining and rigorously articulate. He recognized my potential and affirmed my ability with mathematics at a critical time for me. I want to offer the same to my students.

So where does rock climbing fit in your story?

I’ve been climbing for more than 30 years, and guiding for almost that long. Climbing became my music, my creative outlet. It built my confidence and gave me a sense of belonging to a special community.

I love the thought of being somewhere you shouldn’t be, like on the face of El Capitan in Yosemite. I also appreciate the technicality and physics of climbing: belaying, placing a cam, calculating your movements. It’s all math in action.  

Proudest moment in your life?

Hang with me on this: In 2006, a former student and dear friend of mine went missing in the mountains. His death brought many of his friends together for the first time. In the midst of the tragedy, people I had never met told me, “He spoke so highly of you; he wanted to be just like you.”

That moment was simultaneously heart breaking and incredibly affirming. I learned that, at least for one person, I had become the kind of contributor I aspire to be.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I was hit by lightning.

Pastime or hobbies

In addition to climbing, I juggle. You may also see me around campus on my unicycle. I picked up these hobbies in college when I wanted to try new things. Growing up, people put labels on me, trying to define what I could and could not do. In college, I began challenging those labels. If through some hard work, I can learn to juggle and unicycle, what else can I do?

And of course, I find math in these hobbies too. Juggling involves all kinds of patterns and permutations, almost like DNA sequences. It’s technical; it’s intellectual. Math really is everywhere!