Creating opportunities for kids to shine
Tom Higgins, Artsci'79, discovered a love of math early in life, and it has stood him well, both in his career and in his private life. Now, he's offering the opportunity for high school students to explore their own strengths in mathematics and problem-solving. He's supporting the Queen's Math Quest summer program, an on-campus camp for girls.
Tom made his career in numbers, first in investment banking, then in securities trading, and then, until his retirement a year ago, as President and CEO of Maple Financial Group. But he feels that his aptitude and training in math gave him the resources and discipline that he could have used in any number of professions. And he got a big boost from some pivotal people in his life.
When he was in primary school, Tom's family spent summers in cottage country with his uncle, an engineer and professor at MIT. Tom had started to excel in math at school at this point. But it was his uncle who really showed him the potential in mathematics. “He would encourage me to ask questions and to think about things mathematically, but it was never a chore. He would always make it fun. He had this incredible curiosity, and he showed me that math existed everywhere.”
One of Tom's favourite professors at Queen's was John Coleman, then head of the math department. “He would give us one problem a week for homework. It was never in any of the textbooks, and he didn't show us how to do it. I wouldn't have a clue how to solve it!” But then, Tom realized, “it was important to get that problem in my head, then go do something else, and come back to it in a few days. Then I'd be able to figure it out. That lesson was enormous for me. There are a lot of problems in life that seem impossible to solve. If you don't see a solution right away, it's okay. Don't worry about it. Let your brain work on it in a different mode, and then come back to it.”
He learned another valuable lesson from Professor Coleman. “With mathematical problems, you can solve them in different ways, but he would always give the best marks to the most elegant solution. It's not just about getting to the answer; it's about thinking how to do it in a beautiful way.”
Tom is proud to support the Math Quest program, which brings together high school girls with female instructors for four days of hands-on problem-solving. He sees it as an opportunity, not only to introduce new ideas to the students, but also to boost their confidence in their own abilities.
“A lot of kids have math ability. But so many are afraid of it, or think it's too geeky or it's not interesting enough. The camp allows them to realize that it's fun and that they can do it. A little encouragement goes a very long way. It's a great opportunity for them to shine.”