Nicholas Branca

Nicholas Branca, 1942–2008 

Branca The Consummate Mathematics Educator
and Wonderful Leader at the Local, State, and National Level

Meeting Nicholas Branca, working with him, or hearing one of his mathematics presentations was enough for anyone to like and respect Nicholas Branca. He was personable, knowledgeable, and an ambassador for mathematics wherever he went. Vance Mills, who worked with Nicholas for many years while Director of Mathematics at San Diego City Schools, fondly remembers,

“Nick Branca was loved and respected by all who came in contact with him. He had a great sense of humor, but everyone knew he was very serious about the teaching and learning of mathematics. He could walk into a workshop with primary teachers and make all the participants feel comfortable as he challenged them with problem-solving activities. The primary teachers accepted him as a colleague and I saw this repeated with middle school teachers and high school teachers. His colleagues at the college level were equally respectful of his ability to make presentations regarding teaching and learning mathematics.” 

Born in the South Bronx and educated at Columbia and Harvard Universities, Nicholas Branca came to San Diego State University in 1976 as a professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics. He was deeply involved in the field of mathematics education for more than 30 years. His wife, Melanie Branca, said:

“Nicholas saw San Diego as a golden opportunity to concentrate on his love of mathematics education. Mathematics was a field he developed an interest in as a boy. He remembered being in classrooms with struggling classmates and thinking, ‘Why doesn’t the teacher just say …?’”

More than anything else, Nicholas wanted teachers to move from teaching rote drill of math facts to teaching students to understand the beauty and logic underlying mathematical concepts. In a variety of roles at San Diego State University, his mission was to help K–12 and college teachers improve their strategies for helping students understand, and even enjoy, mathematics. In a 1991 interview, Nicholas said it was imperative for schools to move beyond drill and worksheets to teach higher-mathematics concepts. He stated:
Nick Solving

“No one does drudgery-type mathematics skills as part of their personal life. Teachers lose hundreds of kids along the way who never put it all together without connecting math to real life.”

Nicholas was completely dedicated to the professional development of mathematics teachers at the local, state, and national levels. Among the numerous grants he received to enhance the professional development of teachers were the Authentic Assessment Institute and a Pre-College Teacher Development Grant funded by the National Science Foundation. A typical comment from a teacher in one of his summer institutes was:

“Because of his leadership, I became a better math teacher and a math teacher-leader for my school district. His teaching methods gave me the skills needed to teach my students to make connections between the concrete and the abstract through the utilization of manipulatives and hands-on activities in the classroom.”

Nicholas Branca served on various committees and boards of professional organizations, including the Greater San Diego Mathematics Council (GSDMC), the California Mathematics Council (CMC), and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), and worked with thousands of teachers over the years. In September 2000, CMC presented Nicholas Branca with the Edward Begle Memorial Award for his many contributions to mathematics teachers and mathematics education in California. Vance Mills continued:

“Equally impressive was the fact that Nicholas Branca spent a great deal of time and energy working with the local mathematics community by serving in many roles with the Greater San Diego Mathematics Council. There are not very many individuals that are recognized as a contributor at all grade levels while working actively locally as well as across the state and country. Nicholas was the consummate mathematics educator.”

NickNicholas Branca was very gracious and giving with his time and expertise, and a frequent speaker at local, state, national, and international mathematics conferences for teachers. He had the ability to engage teachers with little formal mathematics education as well as those who were mathematics professors— often at the same time. The creative crafting of his presentations made them interesting and accessible for everyone. He once gave a two-hour presentation about just two numbers and what could be done with them! Ironically, Nicholas was also notorious for being disorganized. It may seem that the two cannot go well together, but Paul Giganti, who worked with Nicholas in both the California Mathematics Projects and the California Mathematics Council, recalls attending one such presentation by Nicholas:

“After Nick was introduced, he proceeded to the lectern carrying a bankers-box overflowing with papers. He told all of us he hadn’t had time to prepare a presentation, so instead he just picked one of the boxes of old files sitting around his office and brought it to share with the group. For 50 minutes he proceeded to pull this and that file, activity, or transparency from the box—in whatever order struck his fancy. With each document he shared a charming story, along with mathematical insights and his typical humor. It was the best ‘unplanned’ presentation I’ve ever attended. Nick was incapable of given a poor presentation!”

Nicholas Branca instilled his passion for mathematics in teachers across California. From 1984 to 1992, he was the first Director of the San Diego Mathematics Project (SDMP) and then in 1992 he became the Executive Director of all 19 of the California Mathematics Projects (CMP). It was then that he asked Rafaela Santa Cruz, who is the current Director of the San Diego Mathematics Project, to take over as Director of that Project. She remembers:

“I learned that although Nicholas excelled in his knowledge of algebra, his knowledge of time and measure was lacking. When he asked me to direct the SDMP he told me, ‘Rafa, it’s just three weeks in the summer.’ In the years that followed we often joked about how directing the math project was not ‘just three weeks in the summer.’ I also became aware that Nicholas had a unique understanding of fractions. We would often have a buffet with assorted desserts for dinner. Nicholas would say, ‘Rafa, let’s get two different desserts, eat half, and then switch—that way neither one of us will eat a whole dessert.’ It made sense to me!”

In 1996 Nicholas was the Principal Investigator on a $5 million grant from the National Science  Foundation that worked with 16 large K–12 school districts throughout California in a five-year professional development program called the Mathematics Renaissance. Nadine Bezuk, Director of the San Diego State University Professional Development Collaborative, said about Nicholas:

“One of his gifts with teachers was to help them see that there are a lot of different ways to solve problems. The lessons and enthusiasm Nicholas brought to each professional development endeavor had a lasting impact on the teachers who participated and the students who benefited from those teachers’ increased understanding and renewed quest for continuous improvement of their mathematics teaching. In workshops with teachers to hone these skills, we saw almost immediate results from Dr. Branca’s suggestions—there were a lot of light bulbs coming on in the participants’ heads. It really all centers around the idea that all people, all students, are capable of doing mathematics, not just an elite few.”

Mathematics can be a dry subject for many people, but Nicholas Branca’s wonderful sense of humor made learning mathematics fun and exciting. Richard Curci, who worked with Nicholas as Co-Director of the California Mathematics Project and is now the principal of Everett Middle School in San Francisco, remembers his wonderful humor:

“I remember at one CMC Asilomar Conference a group of teachers and parents were supporting Saxon Math, a program counter to Nick’s philosophy of learning mathematics. They were wearing T-Shirts that said ‘I Love Saxon Math.’ During a lunch break, Nick went out to a local T-Shirt shop and had a T-Shirt made that read ‘I Love Sex-and-Math.’ It was hilarious. There was never a time that we worked together where we didn’t have a laugh.”

We have so many fond memories of how kind and giving Nicholas was to the entire mathematics community and a true force in mathematics education. His passing was a true loss. He taught many teachers how to be better at their profession AND to enjoy mathematics. Nicholas Branca is missed but will never be forgotten.