WWU Associate Professor of Mathematics Millie Johnson is finishing up her last quarter and 35th year of teaching at Western.
“I never thought I was going to be a teacher, it was the farthest thing from my mind, and it just happened accidentally,” said Johnson, who has been at WWU since 1984. “But I loved it and never left.”
When she was growing up, the St. Paul, Minnesota native said she didn’t like school and the way education was working for her.
“I didn’t like memorizing junk and then spitting it out. It didn’t feel like a good learning model,” she said.
It wasn’t until she began to teach that Johnson found there was academic freedom when it came to the lessons she could provide for her students. She created environments in her classrooms where students could push the boundaries and learn based on thinking logically about the subject rather than focusing on memorization.
While she said sticking to easy formulas can make for grading math assignments and tests easy, she elected to take a different approach allowing more creativity and understanding for students to show how they answered a question.
“It’s hard for students because they want somebody to give them a pile of rules to deal with a problem,” she said. “While this doesn’t apply to everybody, a lot of people are comfortable that way and they feel like that’s what math is. They want to get a gold star because they did what they were supposed to do rather than think about what the problem means and why they’re doing it.”
Western’s Department of Mathematics chair Tjalling Ypma said Johnson’s most distinctive characteristic is her knack for forging personal relationships with her students.
I didn’t like memorizing junk and then spitting it out. It didn’t feel like a good learning model.
“Millie has had a huge impact on vast numbers of Western students, not only through the exceptional quality of her teaching and her profound influence on the shape of the curriculum in our beginning math courses, but also through her caring support and mentorship of many individual students,” Ypma said.
“Her boundless energy and enthusiasm for all things mathematical, combined with her creativity, insight and wide range of knowledge, made her classes a truly memorable experience for her students, many of whom were thus inspired to become math majors,” he said.
In 2016, Johnson started the annual WWU Great Puzzle Hunt to help students understand the logistics of the formulas being presented. She said the puzzle hunt was her first shot at trying to create a community where people would collaborate and appreciate everyone’s talents.
“I’ve always liked puzzles. I like a real good, hard, think in anything, on any subject,” she said. “There’s always a big explosion of satisfaction when you finally get the right words, or have a paragraph that says what you want it to. There’s nothing more satisfying than finally seeing the way.”
For Johnson, that’s what math, music, literature, and any other subject is – the process of making sense or finding the way through something. And that’s what puzzles are.
The Great Puzzle Hunt is comprised of four 65 minute-long puzzles spread out around Western’s campus, and teams of six make their ways around using smartphones to check in at each location. Johnson took a similar approach to Ski to Sea, an event she’s competed in herself for 20 years, combining the relay elements of the race to the individuals of each puzzle hunt team.
Each puzzle is based on a different subject from the performing arts, humanities, and sciences, covering everything from theater to chemistry, to encourage teams to surround themselves with masters of every subject, Johnson said. The fifth or “meta” puzzle is the last one groups tackle using code words received from the previous four puzzles.
It’s made clear teams will have an extremely hard time without a diverse group of minds. Johnson said she hoped the Puzzle Hunt would break down the stereotypes that STEM fields are for the “smart” people, and anyone outside it didn’t have anything to contribute.
I don’t think anything will ever replace the passion I have for teaching and the love I have for my students.
“My feeling is if someone really understands something they should be able to explain it so that others understand it. If we can’t, then what kind of world are we going to end up in?” she said.
The first year Johnson said she only expected 30 to 50 people show up, but was shocked when 350 people turned up for the event. Word quickly spread and people off campus began to partake in the puzzle hunt, leading to multiple divisions for alumni, students, the public and more. This year’s puzzle hunt saw 110 teams come to compete.
“I enjoy the type of thinking required to solve a puzzle when it’s a collaborative process and when it involves people that have lots of different talents,” she said. “To me that’s the most fun and it’s what education means as well.”
Johnson spends the year between each event working with a team of student puzzle masters with the most important qualifiers for candidates being challenging but creative. She said she has a team of puzzle testers from Norway, California and Portland, and since they have people coming from all over the nation she has to be careful that the testers won’t share the puzzles until after the puzzle is over. Johnson said a lot of the fun is finding out the team names and watching the groups who show up in themed costumes.
Winners receive a bevy of prizes including Amazon gift cards and donated goods, but it’s clear the puzzles are the real draw.
Johnson said to have no fear: after her retirement she will continue to run the Great Puzzle Hunt.
“I will always be a teacher,” Johnson said. “I don’t think anything will ever replace the passion I have for teaching and the love I have for my students.”
Raiden van Bronkhorst, a Computer Science major from Berkeley, California, said Millie’s love for her students is reciprocated – and then some.
“Millie has had a huge impact on my college experience. She cares about her students and has really pushed us to improve how we think! Even if we don’t remember theorems from math decades down the road, the biggest takeaway from my time with Millie has been how to think effectively,” he said. “She’s so determined to give her students understanding rather than formulas to memorize, and that great understanding of the link between basic concepts and more abstract ideas has been crucial to my success.”
“She’s a great friend to anyone who has been lucky enough to have her in class, and she’ll be dearly missed,” he said.
After 35 years of service to the campus and her students, Johnson said she has received far more than she has given.
“I have gained a ton from teaching here, but mostly I’ve benefited so much from my students. It has been an honor and a privilege,” she said.
Would you like to support Millie's legacy at WWU? The Western Foundation has set up the Millie Johnson Great Puzzle Hunt Fund. Your gift will provide much needed funding for Millie’s labor of love to keep the Great Puzzle Hunt registration costs low so people from all walks of life can participate. It is quick and easy to donate to the fund by clicking here or going to https://www.vikingfunder.com/MillieJohnsonWWU.