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The math teacher who uses art to teach his students 

Professor Prem-Raj Ruffin uses art to teach square root equations. (Photo courtesy of Prem-Raj Ruffin)

As a child, every stroke of his paintbrush was a lesson in love and creativity for young Prem-Raj Ruffin. His tiny fingers clumsily gripped the paintbrush as his mother patiently guided his hand across the canvas, teaching him colors and the power of expression. 

Ruffin, now a lecturer in the mathematics department at Howard University, is known for combining art and mathematics to help students learn uniquely through pattern recognition.

He moved to many countries around the world before settling with his mom, Zelma Ruffin, in southern Maryland as a young man. With his mother being an esteemed portrait artist, young Ruffin was given art lessons by his mom, and he discovered one of his passions, art, as a young kid. 

Oil portrait of acclaimed jazz saxophonist Antonio Parker. (Photo courtesy of Prem-Raj Ruffin)

Arriving at Howard in 1996, Ruffin shifted his focus to learning the piano when Dr. Raymond Jackson, a piano instructor at Howard, began teaching him the basics of the musical instrument. 

The classical jazz artist also performed at local events and even studied under acclaimed jazz pianist Gerry Allen. 

It wasn’t until he met a Black mathematician named Ronald Morris, a space scientist with the United States Air Force, at a church event that he was inspired to study mathematics with Morris’s assistance. 

“I needed help with a math question and I asked him for help,” Ruffin said. “He laughed at me and showed me something on a piece of paper. I later found out that he was a space scientist in the Air Force, and this really intrigued me.”

Jackson speaks on what stood out about his pupil in terms of his true scholarship in art.

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“What really impressed me is his inquisitiveness to all areas related to art,” he said. “He was interested in music history, the different styles and the different composers. He really is quite a scholar.”

Ruffin graduated from Howard with a master’s degree in Jazz Studies and a piano concentration in 2000. Following his graduation, the aspiring artist worked as a pianist at hotels, trying to make ends meet. 

In 2012, Ruffin received his master’s degree in applied mathematics from Bowie State University. Following this accomplishment, he began combining his love for art and mathematics, discovering unique ways to learn relatively complex mathematical concepts through visuals. 

His research and teaching style is inspired by ethnomathematics, the belief that because different cultures have evolved different ways of using math, students will learn best if taught in ways that relate to their ancestral culture. 

He adapted mathematical traditions from India, Japan, China and African countries.  

Professor Ruffin also uses art to teach patterns in mathematics. (Photo courtesy of Prem-Raj Ruffin) 

“The style of math that I do is based around looking at patterns in math and shapes and using those to compute various types of problems,” he said. “We start off with exponents and then we eventually work up to multiplying 10-digit numbers.”

Ruffin expresses his creativity by using many colors in his teaching illustrations. He also encourages students to use graphic organizers for their notes. 

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The professor says that students using their creativity with shapes and colors is more effective in the learning environment than dull lecturing.

Oil portrait of Chadwick Boseman. (Photo courtesy of Prem-Raj Ruffin)

Ruffin has been pursuing his master’s degree in fine arts at Howard University. The professor advises the younger aspiring students in the class, highlighting how to mix different colors evenly while still prioritizing the voice of the younger artist to be heard in the process. 

Melvin Jackson, a graduate student in Howard’s fine arts program, recalls a time when Ruffin coordinated a student art exhibition.

“He really is a genius,” he said. “I remember the time he was the head of the exhibition. He was really aggressive in making the artist’s consideration addressed. There was a difference when he became the coordinator than in the past.”

As for the future, Ruffin has plans to record jazz and classical music. With his love of teaching, he says he would also love to teach piano and painting at Howard while learning how to paint figurative works.

Copy edited by Alana Matthew

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