Ron Larson, author of the precalculus and calculus textbooks used at Shaler and creator of CalcChat, is a professor at Penn State Erie. His advancements in calculus and other areas of mathematics have been published in more than 45 books, which are available for purchase.
How did you get your start in the mathematical industry?
I started teaching at Penn State Erie when I was 28 years old. After 3 years of teaching, I decided to try to write a calculus textbook. I wrote the book in 1973 and submitted the 1300 pages of manuscript to several publishers. They all rejected it. I repeated this process again in 1974 and in 1975, each receiving nothing but rejections. It was discouraging, but I felt determined to learn from my failures. Finally, in 1976, I wrote what was to become the first edition of Calculus. This manuscript was accepted by 7 publishers. I was ecstatic. Do you know the feeling of wanting something so much that you can’t sleep and you live with both the fear of failure and the fantasy of success? Those few times in life when our fantasies come true stick with us forever.
How does one write a text book? How long does it take?
This depends on whether a person knows what he or she is doing or not. When I first started writing, I didn’t know how to write a book. Consequently, that first book took 6 years to write. After many years of making mistakes, I finally learned that the way to write a good book is to remove yourself from the picture. Instead of spouting your own ideas, start listening to the ideas of your readers. When you do this, the whole process goes much more quickly.
How do you determine your word problems?
Once the books started selling, I started hiring people to help me produce the textbooks. Now, at Larson Texts, in Erie, PA, we have about 80 employees. Many of them have math degrees and spend time researching realistic problems.
What made you want to become a mathematician?
I got married at age 18 when I graduated from high school. At the time I didn’t want to go to college. Finally, 3 years later I started in a community college in Vancouver, Washington. I thought I would major in pre-law. Finally, in my sophomore year I switched to math. My personality fits this subject. Words like “probably”, “maybe”, and “usually” are a bit frustrating for me. That is the reason I was drawn to mathematics. I much prefer the certainty of words such as “always” or “never”.
What is Larson’s Custom Quilting and what happened to it?
After I got married, my wife and I took an apprenticeship in custom quilting. We opened our own business working for interior designers making quilted bedspreads and quilting for upholstering. It didn’t take us long to decide that there had to be an easier way to make a living. It was at that point that we sold the business and I started college.
Why do you only give the answers to the odd problems in the back of the books?
Giving the answers to only the odd-numbered exercises is traditional in math books. The practice started because it gives teachers the option of assigning homework problems in which the answers are provided and assigning homework problems in which the answers are not provided.
How did CalcChat come to be?
I started CalcChat.com in 2001. Most math textbooks provide a printed Student Solution Manual that has the worked-out solutions to the odd-numbered exercises. In 2001, I decided to start providing these worked-out solutions for free. Since that time, CalcChat has grown to include free online tutoring and free APPs. In 2015, students downloaded over 50 million solutions from CalcChat. The “live tutors” who work at CalcChat are college students who work in our intern program. You can read about this program at LarsonTexts.com. It offers partial college tuition reimbursement to students who work at Larson Texts at least 1000 hours a year.
Do you think high school teachers put too much of a work load on students?
Oh boy! I am not going to answer this one. I don’t want to get myself in trouble.
What is your opinion on students taking college level math in high school?
I have mixed feelings about taking college level math in high school. There is so much depth, history, and deep understanding that can be gained from a slow-paced intense course in high school precalculus. When a person truly understands all of the sophistication of precalculus, it makes calculus much easier to understand.