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Visiting Fulbright Scholar: Prof. Wayne Tarrant


For three years, Prof. Wayne Tarrant has been working with the Strathmore Institute of Mathematical Sciences on mathematics research, teaching research classes and curriculums using the inquiry-based learning method. He first came to the country in person in May this year in search of a suitable school for his children before settling in later in June with his wife and their five children. They will be here for ten months as he pursues his research interests through the Fulbright Faculty Scholars International exchange programme.

Wayne Tarrant is Associate Professor of mathematics at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Terre Haute, Indiana, the top-ranked undergraduate engineering college in the USA. Before coming to Kenya, his family has lived in Germany and France, while on a regular basis, they visit an orphanage in Honduras, thanks to a 20-year-old tie his father-in-law has with the orphanage.

In his lustrous career, Wayne has won the Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty award, an endowed professorship at his university, the BB&T Program on the Moral Foundations of Free Enterprise grant, various awards from the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network, and many awards local to his university for both research and teaching.

We spoke to him on his aspirations for the next few months.

Why Strathmore?

Kenya came into my radar through a missionary school in Kijabe that I would have wanted to partner with. However, though this did not work out, Kenya would not leave my heart.  I then got into contact with different universities in the country and SIMS were willing to work with me for the last three years. Last year I was unable to physically be here due to the pandemic and the opportunity materialized this year.  It helps that Strathmore has one of the strongest financial mathematics and financial engineering programmes in all the world, a rare offering as worldwide there are perhaps only 5 or 6 universities with these programmes.

What I also love about Strathmore is that here ethics are important. There are too many places in the world where corruption rules but in this university you find people who are willing to make a difference in the lives of students and in the community.

What are your research interests?

I became interested in Mpesa and Mshwari and this further added to Kenya becoming the destination of choice. For instance, I’d like to find out why Mswari has a low loan default rate – 2% – yet overall, with all loans, the default rate is about 4% and on short term loans, the figure generally gets closer to 50%. There are many different aspects of study in this space that it’s almost overwhelming to try to do everything that I’d like to do – that’s better than having to scrounge for research questions.

I am currently teaching a course on introduction to scholastic processes for 2nd year students and a graduate course on discrete time finance methods. Next semester I hope to teach in my area of expertise, risk measures, to graduate students.

What do you hope to achieve by the end of the academic year?

I strongly advocate for teaching through inquiry based methods; this involves, more than providing solutions to students, asking questions and letting them find the answers because then they have ownership of the knowledge. I am grateful to have been the first person to earn two grants from the Academy for Inquiry-Based Learning and I am presently working on an inquiry-based text on risk measures. With this background, I am particularly interested in the Competency-Based Curriculum that was rolled out in Kenya. I hope to contribute to it by assisting in its uptake through training of teachers.

I hope to hold discussions on how and why we teach and to encourage faculty to delve more into research and pursue their PhDs because in the academic world doctorates open doors and allow researchers to turn into great leaders in their fields. I also would like to see further collaboration between my university and Strathmore. I am already recruiting my colleagues who can assist with the newly launched engineering programme. In turn, as we don’t have a financial engineering programme, it would be of great help to partner with a faculty member here who has more experience than I do.

You wrote a paper on “An economic viewpoint on the Biblical Joseph”. How do you apply modern principles to a historical story? 

I held a discussion one day at lunch with a friend, a professor of religion, who at that time was writing a book on global perspectives on the bible. I pointed out to him that Joseph was the first Keynesian because he took in the time of plenty to save for the time in famine. The paper later developed out of this discussion. It was an opportunity to talk about my faith and also about the great wisdom that God gave to Joseph, who then knew that when you have a time of plenty, you have to save in order to survive the times of scarcity. I wish our politicians had the wisdom and courage that Joseph had.

You speak passionately about religion. Is it something that is easy to publicly live by?

In my classes I let my students know that I am a Christian and that it is important to me. In fact, I tell students that they should not believe in everything that I say. There is a place for faith, but not in a mathematics classroom; they should test theories because a mathematics class is a place for use of rational thought. There is more challenge in my home country in regards to religion, it’s much easier here in Kenya. Not everyone will agree in what I believe in but it’s amazing the impact these few words on my faith will have in students. So I am not afraid to speak out even though this may sometimes get me into trouble.

Did you always see yourself as a teacher of mathematics?

Since the age of 14, I have. I started tutoring at this age and found that there’s a great deal of joy in helping someone else to accomplish things for themselves. At age 15, I had my own class helping students prepare for national exams. And when I was at college, I taught a calculus class when a professor suffered an injury and the university couldn’t find a replacement. Through all of these experiences I came to see teaching as a calling in my life and I am grateful for that because it means I never stop learning, growing, and helping others.

What’s your education background?

My undergraduate degree in pure mathematics in a small liberal arts college called Wake Forest University. I took a number of religion classes here as well. I pursued a master’s degree in pure mathematics from Indiana University and went to the University of Georgia for a PhD which I thought would be in number theory but I ended up in algebraic geometry.

After completing in 2002, I became a professor for 4 years but I did not enjoy what I was doing, I needed something different. The Erasmus mundus programme took me to Germany where I got a master’s degree in economics from Bielefeld Universitaet and a master’s degree in finance from the Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne. Here I took part in the starting of the Paris school of economics which was a great opportunity for me. I didn’t know where the economics and finance would take me but it made a perfect match for me to be here at Strathmore. So although it sounds like it’s a winding road, God had a plan all along and here I am. What comes next? We don’t know.


This article was written by Wambui Gachari.       


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