National Numeracy Network > In Memoriam: Lynn Steen

In Memoriam: Lynn Steen

The NNN is saddened by the loss of our dear friend and mentor Lynn Steen. Lynn was a pioneer in the field of Quantitative Literacy. His brilliant and lucid prose helped jump start the entire QL movement, providing a compelling rationale for a more meaningful mathematical experience for all students. He will be missed.




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Many NNNers know that Lynn and I worked together quite a bit over the past dozen or so years and quite often from the early 1980s. Writing and editing with Lynn was an experience like no other in my lifetime. He could take my awkward prose and mold it into something beyond respectable. I am reminded of the old expression, "silk purse from a sow's ear." And his own writing was lucid, meaning-packed, and lyrical. One of my most enjoyable experiences with Lynn was our joint presentation at the beginning of the NNN-PKAL meeting at Carleton where he would set me up by posing questions and follow-up questions that I attempted to answer. Normally, the questioner would not be the main presenter, but that was not the case this time. I learned to listen closely to Lynn's often-understated observations and reflect on them later. He was a master and an inspiration to me. I miss him already and know I shall miss him often down the road.

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This post was editted by Len Vacher on Jun, 2015
Like Bernie, I miss Lynn already. This brilliant, kind, gentle man was, after all, the thought leader for our field, quantitative literacy. I must admit I chuckled when I read the quotation in the Northfield obituary that said “His work ethic was legendary, as was his talent for getting his colleagues involved in projects.” I met Lynn when he was in the midst of one of those projects, the one that led to the NNN (see the history of numeracy and NNN recounted by Bernie and Lynn in the first issue of Numeracy): the one with the NCED (and Bob Orrill) that led to the four books, Why Numbers Count (1997), Mathematics and Democracy (2001), Why Numeracy Matters (2003), and Achieving Quantitative Literacy (2004). I’ll never forget that meeting: July 2-3, 2001, in Philadelphia, a small group invited by Susan Ganter, the leader of the outreach component of NCED’s initiative in quantitative literacy. That’s where I met not only Lynn, but also Bernie, Bob, Susan, Dorothy Wallace, Jerry Johnson, and some others on the “Design Team” that produced “The Case for Quantitative Literacy,” p. 1-22 in Mathematics and Democracy, which had just been published – and provided as required reading for that meeting. That experience – the meeting and the book – changed my life. I learned that there was a whole new side of mathematics. A kinder, gentler mathematics that is so much more socially relevant than what I was used to in my teaching in STEM. It changed my thinking and my teaching, given me a whole new direction, and it has enriched my professional life.

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Lynn Steen (1941-2015) established the foundations for quantitative literacy (numeracy). He saw numeracy as a social good: "Numeracy lies at the intersection of statistics, mathematics and democracy. Like statistics, numeracy is centered on interpretation of data; like mathematics, numeracy builds on arithmetic and logic. But the unique niche filled by numeracy is to support citizens in making decisions informed by evidence." (Steen, 2003). He saw context as essential to QL: "The essence of QL is to use mathematical and logical thinking in context." (Steen, 2004)

Lynn helped me get started in Quantitative Literacy. I first met him in 1999 at AMATYC. In 2000, he supported my Keck grant proposal. He invited me to present at three conferences: ICME-9 (2000), PKAL/Snowbird (2001), and Wingspread (2008). He invited me to write for two publications: Peer Review (2004) and Calculation vs. Context (2009).

After reading his obituary, I realized that Lynn and I shared something in common: we both studied physics and philosophy as undergraduates. In both disciplines, context is essential. This may have left us with a common desire to integrate the elements of our mathematical disciplines into the context of everyday life. Perhaps that is why Lynn asked me to participate in the founding of the quantitative literacy movement.

Thank you Lynn Steen. I miss you.

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As with Len, I too benefited from: “[Lynn's] work ethic was legendary, as was his talent for getting his colleagues involved in projects.” While I had served with Lynn on some committees before hand, after MAA asked me to organize a celebration of the National Academy's publication of Bio 2010, Lynn took over the editing of the conference's follow on document: Math & Bio 2010: Linking Undergraduate Disciplines which MAA published in 2005. Lynn's rhetorical skill, passion for reaching diverse audiences, and skill in negotiating with heterogeneous groups were paramount in achieving such a nice product that has influenced discussions about numeracy in biology education ever since. As an Editor, he had a light touch, but he still communicated when he was unhappy with my run-on sentences with multiple parenthetical remarks. He also personally influenced me deeply in that he was always able to deal with students where they were and his famous essay on data, symbols, and shapes amply illustrated that passion for empowering citizens. With deepest gratitude for having such broad shoulders for the rest of us to stand on, goodbye Lynn.

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