Thornton leaves legacy of enhancing quality of math education at UNL

Professor emeritus Melvin Thornton
Professor emeritus Melvin Thornton

Professor emeritus Melvin Thornton, a passionate educator whose contributions to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Department of Mathematics have left an inspiring legacy of compassion and innovation, passed away at the age of 84 on May 30, 2020.

A native Iowan, Thornton first came to UNL as an undergraduate student in 1953, enrolling as a mathematics major on a Naval scholarship. Thornton, with his friendly and engaging demeanor, thrived during his time at the university. He graduated in 1957, and, the following year, he married Rosemary, his college sweetheart.

After Thornton’s graduation, he served in the Navy as a lieutenant junior grade on the troop transport ship The Calvert for two years. However, when he returned from service, he knew he wanted to pursue a higher level of education. Thornton and his wife moved to Champaign, Illinois, and he was accepted into the University of Illinois’s graduate program. He graduated in February 1965 with his doctorate in mathematics and was promptly offered his first post-grad teaching position at the University of Wisconsin.

When he returned to UNL as a mathematics professor in 1969, Thornton was the primary instructor of Math 350, a geometry course, and an array of other mathematics courses for elementary education majors.

“He was especially fond of teaching teachers, both future teachers and the teachers who were part of the grant programs in which he was involved,” said Jim Lewis, Aaron Douglas professor of mathematics and one of Thornton’s long-time colleagues.

Thornton’s natural aptitude and initiative with primary educators proved to be invaluable assets. During his 31-year career with the department, he assisted with and directed several nationally funded programs that enhanced the quality of math education both at UNL and throughout the Cornhusker State.

In 1986, Thornton was named a co-principal investigator for the Nebraska Mathematics Scholars Program for Secondary School Teachers alongside Jack Eidswick and the late Don Miller. The Nebraska Mathematics Scholars Program for Secondary School Teachers began with an $833,892 grant from the National Science Foundation with the intent to fund a three-year professional development program for 66 outstanding high-school math teachers who earned a master’s degree in mathematics from UNL.

These educators traveled in three cohorts to attend five-week summer sessions at UNL, Hastings College and Chadron State College. Each cohort visited one institution a summer in the span of these three years, and during the academic year, the program offered dissemination activities to keep the established cohorts of instructors connected and engaged.

Met with incredible enthusiasm from participants and other state educators, Miller and Thornton decided to add a fourth year to the program. The Scholars Program ultimately reached over 100 educators, cultivating a talented community of strong leaders within the network of secondary math teachers across Nebraska.

Following the success of the Nebraska summer program, Thornton and Miller sought to emulate Nebraska’s educator development program on a larger scale. After receiving another $1.1 million Teacher Enhancement grant from the NSF in 1991, the duo served together again as co-PIs of the Western Mathematics Scholars Program for middle and secondary math educators across Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

During the program’s second year, Thornton became the project director and led Western Math Scholars to new heights. An advocate for non-traditional students, Thornton added an alternate assessment seminar to the curriculum because he wanted to help rural educators better meet the needs of their diverse classrooms.

In 1991, Thornton also served as a co-PI for the Nebraska Statewide Systemic Initiative, later renamed the Nebraska Math and Science Initiative, with Miller and Lewis. This $10 million grant continued the effort to improve the quality of and engagement with math and science programs in schools across Nebraska by creating new modes of instruction for teachers.

Within this initiative, Thornton was named the project leader for developing Math Vantage, a middle school Pre-Algebra 1 curriculum that included a series of videos designed to communiate with middle school students. While working to create videos, Thornton concurrently taught a televised synchronous math course for 140 elementary school teachers from various Nebraska schools. Jokingly referred to as “MTV mathematics” for the flashy music and professional acting included throughout the series, the Math Vantage videos aimed to make math fun for middle school students while giving them the tools they needed to be successful in algebra.

The Math Vantage videos were produced by Nebraska Public Television as a free resource for teachers across the state. The video rights were also sold through MTV and various other national groups, and most statewide public television channels purchased the videos themselves, in turn generating royalties for Math Vantage.

When Miller passed away in 1992, Thornton and Lewis established the Don Miller Fund with the royalties from the videos to provide funding to support faculty working to improve mathematics teaching and learning in Nebraska. Today, this fund is used to offer partial fellowships for teachers enrolled in graduate courses, primarily via the Nebraska Math and Science Summer Institutes.

A dedicated and encouraging professor to all, Thornton’s work garnered the respect and recognition of his mathematics colleagues both at UNL and across the nation. In 1987, Thornton was awarded the AMACO University-wide Distinguished Teaching Award for helping his students have positive experiences in math education.

In the 1990s, Thornton earned a Parents Association and Teaching Council Recognition Award for Contributions to Students, the Heads Together Award for his work to make UNL’s campus a more accessible environment for disabled students, and the Award for Distinguished University Teaching of Mathematics from the Nebraska Section of the Mathematics Association of America. Most notably, Thornton was named Nebraska Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation in 1994—he also received the university’s Outstanding Teaching and Instructional Creativity Award that same year—and in 1995, UNL named Thornton to the Academy of Distinguished Teachers. Thornton retired from teaching on July 1, 2000, the day before his 65th birthday.

“As evidenced by the awards he received, Mel was an outstanding teacher,” Lewis said.

Thornton is remembered by the UNL community as a mathematics visionary who not only enhanced the quality of math education throughout Nebraska but also enriched the lives of those who had the privilege of working with him.

– Gabrielle Cottraux