Mathematics Enthusiast and Fitness Fan Entering New Phase

Pamela Clute's ‘transition’ schedule is keeping her connected to UC Riverside through speeches, STEM consulting, ‘ab attacks’ and power baking

Pamela Clute holding a piece of paper during a talk.

Pamela Clute, special assistant to the chancellor at UC Riverside

EDITOR’S NOTE: Pamela Clute, assistant vice chancellor emerita and UCR Foundation trustee passed away on Sunday, August 21, 2016. A memorial service has been set for 4 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 6 at the UCR Student Recreation Center. 

By Jeanette Marantos

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) — Somewhere it’s officially noted that Pamela Clute has retired from the University of California, Riverside after more than 40 years of teaching, directing the ALPHA Center and creating innovative programs and partnerships in mathematics and science instruction. But Clute, a former assistant vice chancellor, doesn’t like to use the “R” word to describe her latest phase in life.

“I like to talk about transition, not retirement, especially when it comes to UCR,” said Clute, who now holds the title special assistant to the chancellor. “I earned three degrees and a teaching credential, landed a job and found a husband (former state Assemblyman Steve Clute) all at UCR, so you can see why I say it’s my life. You can be sure I’ll always have some connections to the campus which shaped me as a person and as a professional.”

Yes, along with connections to just about everywhere else. Trying to write about Clute and her many interests is like building a multiple-choice quiz where the correct answer is always “All of the above.”

  • Multi-award-winning baker who won $25,000 in the Pillsbury Bakeoff for her Peanut Butter Marshmallow Bars when she was just 16.
  • Financed her college education in the 1970s by regularly playing blackjack in Las Vegas.
  • Passionate teacher who focused on inspirational mathematics instruction.
  • Co-founder and director of UC Riverside’s ALPHA Center, which over 16 years brought in $20 million in grants for college readiness programs, especially in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) learning.
  • Inventor/instructor of UCR’s popular “Ab Attack” exercise class.
  • Creator of the Federation for a Competitive Economy (FACE), a multi-partner effort to increase college readiness and double the number of college graduates in the Inland Empire.

“The common thread for me is I truly have this genuine need to do something for someone,” Clute said. “So when I find a receptive audience, whether it’s people who want to learn mathematics or work out or eat good food, I want to step in and fill the need. I just never want to let anyone down.”

Pam Clute illuminated by an overhead projector while speaking to a class

Pamela Clute, special assistant to the chancellor

Not likely. Less than a week into her “transition,” Clute already has 22 speaking engagements set up for the next two months, promoting engaging mathematics instruction and STEM learning in K-12 schools and colleges around Southern California. But she’s also busy creating a new date-infused brownie recipe for the Riverside County Fair and Date Festival baking contest, which she’s won in the past, and to balance out her love of sweets, the 65-year-old Clute will resume teaching her famous “Ab Attack” exercise class at UC Riverside’s new Student Recreation Center this spring.

Clute developed her Ab Attack routine about 25 years ago from the most difficult exercises she could find, and began teaching it to students in 1994. The twice-a-week class has become so popular that nearly 200 students sign up every quarter, even following the routine out in the hall once the class is full.

The class was canceled this winter until the rec center could be completed and the office has been fielding almost daily queries about when it’s coming back.

“Ab Attack is just 48 minutes of working core, and 12 minutes working glutes, six minutes a cheek, but it’s the most painful, excruciating yet effective workout,” Clute said. “The students moan and groan and it’s a point of pride if they can get through the routine. It makes me feel good that all those 19-year-olds want to work out with someone old enough to be their grandmother.”

Yes, well about that. Clute exudes energy the way a bonfire radiates heat, and with her glossy white hair, bright red lipstick and super trim figure.

“Pam is not your average older person,” said Lindy Fenex, UC Riverside’s recreation director. “Her passion, enthusiasm and personality have by far made Ab Attack the most successful and popular fitness class we’ve ever offered. She’s got a home in recreation at UCR as long as she wants it.”

Mind you, while she was attacking abs—a class she’s always taught for free—Clute also had waiting lists of students wanting to take her mathematics classes, especially Math 15 for non-math majors, and she was running UC Riverside’s ALPHA Center, overseeing a staff of more than 40 people while creating programs to better prepare K-12 students for college. Her focus was on programs that made students—particularly girls and minorities—stronger in STEM learning, especially mathematics.

The ALPHA Center closed in December 2014, with the best programs moved to other departments and organizations. And while she was phasing out the center, Clute focused on another challenging project: At the behest of former Chancellor Tim White, Clute spent the last five years building partnerships and potential college readiness programs for the Federation for a Competitive Economy (FACE) in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

“FACE was really Chancellor White’s brainchild. He insisted that the best way of improving the economic vitality of the Inland Empire was for educators to work with government, nonprofits and business as a collective team to elevate the education attainment of local students,” Clute said. “Getting bi-county educators to develop an implementation plan took forever. It doesn’t sound like much… getting people in both regions to work together … but if you know the history, the bitter feuds between the two counties, you would understand this is huge.”

She likened the job to “herding butterflies,” but in classic Clute style she was filling a need, which has guided her direction throughout life. Even in the 1970s she didn’t want to burden her parents with paying for her college education at UC Riverside, so she developed a successful technique to win at blackjack (“It was always blackjack. I lost at everything else.”). She visited Las Vegas about twice a month, sometimes with partners and sometimes alone, and played through the night. “I didn’t get rich off of it, but it pretty much paid all my expenses.”

She doesn’t play anymore, outside of using card games to demonstrate probability theory to her students, one of her many creative techniques to make mathematics relevant to her students. Her skill also gave her some extra credibility with others who were dubious about Clute’s desire to become a math teacher, and not a mathematician.

“If you chose math education, people thought something was wrong with you, like, ‘She can’t cut it in mathematics so she’s going on into education,’” she said. “But it was my choice. I knew from the moment I was born I wanted to be a teacher and I agree with Lee Iacocca (former CEO of Ford Motors) when he said, ‘The best and brightest should go into teaching because we’re responsible for shaping the minds of the next generation. What could be more important?’”

Indeed, it was Clute’s fifth grade teacher who provided the epiphany moment that shaped her life: He assigned his class to bring something from home that had nothing to do with math.

“I thought, ‘This will be easy,’ but that night it became a family conversation at the dinner table. I poked into art, but my dad said, ‘Wait a minute, you’ve got geometry’ and then my mom pointed out something else and by the end of the night we couldn’t find anything, and, of course, the teacher said, that was the point.

“When I heard that I thought, ‘Oh my God, math is everything and if I know math, I’ll know everything.’ From that moment my approach to math was not about numbers only. I viewed it as this powerful vehicle that was connected to every topic and everything, and I had a talent for sharing that connection. What brings me the most joy is when I can share that talent with young people in my classroom. Then they see the purpose and relevance of math, and when young people see purpose and relevance, that’s the best catalyst for further learning.”

Clute followed her plan. She earned her BA in mathematics in 1971, her teaching credential in 1972 and went to Redlands to teach seventh grade mathematics, until Bruce Chalmers, one of her former UC Riverside mathematics professors, insisted she return to UCR to complete a masters and a Ph.D.

“He’d watched me teach young people just to get ideas for his own classroom and he told me, ‘You have the most unusual style for making mathematics come alive. You need to teach teachers how to teach. You’ve got this gift and you need to come back to graduate school.’

Having someone believe in me made me want to rise to the occasion. That’s why I take exception when people say role models can only be people who look, act and think like you. The connection isn’t how you look, but what your passion is, and making the people who are listening believe in themselves.”

And, of course, filling their need to learn. “I’ve really been blessed to be able to devote all my attention to my passion, and to my husband. I’ve put my focus on a bigger family—I’ve kept track, I have log books you wouldn’t believe—and I’ve had interactions with close to 100,000 students, probably more. That’s my love. Mathematics is my vehicle for instilling the desire to learn in others, and I hope that will be my legacy.”

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