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The Beauty of Mathematics: An Interview with Mrs. Pallavi Shah

posted Jul 8, 2010, 8:08 PM by Glenna Buford   [ updated Jul 8, 2010, 8:10 PM by AWM Editor ]

2005 AWM Essay Contest: 
Grade 6-8 First Place

by Nina Kamath

"I learnt so much from Mrs. Shah," said my brother Ashwin, now a freshman at Lynbrook High School, last summer. I had heard so much of Mrs. Shah over the past two years that, when I saw this essay contest a few weeks ago, I decided to interview her.

Mrs. Pallavi Shah is a Mathematics teacher at Joaquin Miller Middle School, San Jose, California, teaching Pre-algebra, Geometry, and Math Enrichment classes to seventh and eighth grade students. She was born and raised in Mumbai, India. After completing her high school education, she received her bachelor’s degree in science in Mumbai. She then came to the United States and got a degree in Child Development and received her teaching credentials from San Jose State University. She has been a teacher for thirteen years, teaching Computer Concepts and Applications and Mathematics.

Mrs. Shah’s pursuit of a career in teaching had humble beginnings. As a student, she felt that she didn't have adequate skills to pursue a career in Mathematics. She comes from a well-educated family; her father was a gold medalist and her sister was very good in Mathematics and she felt she could never get as good as them. While completing her studies in the US, she worked as a computer programmer. It was during this time that she noticed that she was quite good in math and also really enjoyed it as well. So, she was motivated to pursue a career in mathematical sciences, deciding to become a teacher after having her first child. She enjoyed the "beauty of Mathematics" and felt that her teaching strengths lay in teaching math. She worked hard to become a teacher and now strives to teach all of her students "to the best of my abilities." She has received numerous awards during her teaching career, including the Edyth May Sliffe Award given to Distinguished Junior High School Teachers in Mathematics and the Santa Clara Valley Mathematics Association Award for Middle School Mathematics Teacher of the year.

In Miller Middle School, Mrs. Shah is best known for her success as the coach of winning teams for Mathcounts, a national coaching and competition program open to middle school students. Each year thousands of students from all over the country take part in this competition at the regional and the state levels, culminating in a national championship in Washington D.C. in May. Mrs. Shah has been the coach of the Miller Middle School for the past four years and has won the San Jose regional and California state championships every year. In the past three years, she has coached the California teams that were placed first, second and third at the national championships. This earned them a trip to the Oval Office to meet President Bush. "I felt extremely honored," Mrs. Shah said. "We spent ten minutes in the Oval Office, and for him, that's a lot of time."

A few years ago, Mrs. Shah was introduced to several math contests by her mentor, Mrs. Mary Fay-Zenk, who is now the Vice-Principal at Miller Middle School, and she just "fell in love" with the various math contests offered to middle school students. She now teaches the Math Enrichment class at Miller Middle School geared primarily to students who are motivated in taking part in math contests. "These contests take the students beyond the prescribed routine in textbooks and make them really appreciate the beauty of Mathematics," she says. She attributes a lot of her success as the coach of Mathcounts teams to the two mentors in her life, her father, who gave her a strong foundation in Mathematics, and to Mrs. Fay-Zenk, who guided her during the initial coaching days.

Mrs. Shah advises students to take a very active interest in Mathematics. "A strong foundation in Mathematics," she says, "is critical for all future engineers, leaders, mathematicians, and scientists." She has a strong interest in achieving gender equality in the field of Mathematics and she specifically encourages girls to take interest in math and compete in challenging contests.

Besides her academic career, Mrs. Shah devotes plenty of time for community service. Being a devout Jain, she is a strict vegetarian. She has taught Gujarthi, an Indian language she is fluent in, and the aspects of non-violence, the main doctrine of Jainism, to young children in Chinmaya Mission School, a volunteer-run non-profit Indian Sunday school focused on promoting Indian culture in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has gone to Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, and lectured adults about getting their children excited in working on math problems. She spends several hours advising and guiding parents who wish to improve their children's math skills.

Mrs. Shah also reaches out to her mathematical community. She is the Editor of the Santa Clara Valley Mathematics Association Newsletter for the past two years. She is also running for the office of Secretary for the California Mathematics Council, an organization committed to setting a standard of excellence in the teaching of Mathematics.

Mrs. Shah loves music and dance. Having had a few lessons in Indian classical music as a child, she spends her free time singing or listening to music. During Indian festivals, she joins her friends and family, and participates in Indian folk dancing. Mrs. Shah's fifteen year-old daughter in high school, who participates in several extra-curricular activities after school, has demands on her time as well. So, due to her professional, volunteering, and family commitments, she gets very little time to pursue some of the other hobbies she used to enjoy, growing up. "I will get back to painting and crocheting as soon as I have more free time," she said, with a smile.

A dedicated educator, a selfless volunteer, and a devoted parent, Mrs. Pallavi Shah is a pillar of strength in the San Jose Community. Her passion and enthusiasm makes everyone around her strive for excellence and I look forward to taking her classes when I go to seventh and eighth grades.

About the student: 
My name is Nina Kamath and I am a sixth grader in Joaquin Miller Middle School in San Jose, California. I was born in Sunnyvale, California and currently live in Saratoga, California. My favorite subjects are Mathematics and Science. My hobbies include playing the piano, Indian classical dance, and Indian vocal music. I have been learning to play the piano for over five years, dancing and singing for four years. I love to travel and I have been to several countries. I hope to represent Miller Middle School for Mathcounts in seventh and eighth grades.