A lifelong passion for improving education is at the core of Barbara Janson’s contributions to Iowa State University.
As a student, researcher and entrepreneur, Janson (’65 mathematics) discovered how combining academics with a comprehensive understanding of business operations can improve education. In fact, she learned that combination can change the way an entire nation learns mathematics. That’s one of the reasons Iowa State University presented her with the Distinguished Alumni Award, the highest honor given to alumni by Iowa State University, on April 20, 2018.
Janson started on the path to success early, becoming the director of publications for the American Mathematical Society at a notably young age. When U.S. President Ronald Reagan singled out mathematics and science as deficiencies in the nation’s education system, Janson was inspired to launch her own company, Janson Publications, to seek out a solution.
“Barbara gave back to her undergraduate institution in an impressive way that contributed – and continues to contribute – to the success of many ISU students, and to a substantial improvement of retention rates across Iowa State.”
Janson used her unique skill set to discover and support work that would improve teaching of mathematics in K-12 classrooms. Leveraging strategic partnerships and her academic background in mathematics, Janson published curriculum and program materials that introduced new teaching strategies, such as using real-life situations in math problems. These helped transform mathematics, traditionally a subject taught through memorization and replication, into an area of study that was interesting, and one that could be recognized for its real-world applications.
In addition to her role in transforming K-12 classrooms throughout the nation, Janson continued to make a difference at Iowa State in numerous volunteer roles. She joined the Department of Mathematics Advisory Council in 2007, and quickly identified an opportunity to make a large impact once again.
At the time, Iowa State shared a challenge with universities around the nation – students struggling with introductory mathematics classes. This issue affected retention of students in all majors – in fact, the difficulty of mathematics classes was a leading factor in students dropping out of college.
Janson partnered with the mathematics department to develop new practices and processes to improve the success in mathematics for all Iowa State students. In an effort that encompassed collaborating with departments across campus; training faculty and teaching assistants; and evaluating and redesigning courses and placement exams, the department increased the success rates of students and made a positive impact on the retention rates of freshmen and sophomores.
“Barbara gave back to her undergraduate institution in an impressive way that contributed – and continues to contribute – to the success of many ISU students, and to a substantial improvement of retention rates across Iowa State,” Wolfgang Kliemann, professor of mathematics and then departmental chair, said.
Janson continues to make an impact at Iowa State and in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS) as a member of the LAS Dean’s Advisory Council, the Iowa State University Foundation board of governors and the Iowa State University Foundation board of directors – including a past term as a member of the executive committee for the foundation. As the chair of Iowa State University Foundation’s investment committee, Janson helped secure a $90 million endowment gift for LAS, one of the largest gifts in Iowa State history. Her professional experience was critical in realizing the transformational gift.
In addition to countless volunteer and financial philanthropic roles she plays in her local community and across the country, Janson continues her support of the mathematics department at Iowa State. She remains a key member of the mathematics advisory board and maintains the Barbara J. Janson Professorship in Mathematics award. This award, currently held by Steve Butler, associate professor in mathematics, provides support for a mathematics faculty member with demonstrated commitment to student success, research and excellence in teaching.