Help us help students!
Make a Donation
The 2012 Putnam Team -
the 71th ranked team out of 578
college and universities
Sign up! for 2013
Creating a Vibrant Undergraduate Mathematics Program
by Sandy Ganzell and Dave Kung
What makes students want to study mathematics? Why would nearly 15% of a college’s students earn either a major or minor in our beloved subject — roughly ten times the national average? What makes a vibrant mathematics department tick?
At St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM), we didn’t design a thriving department from scratch, we borrowed from the well-tested models across the country — and added a couple of our own special touches. The result? We’re struggling to stay ahead of burgeoning enrollments. The Math wing of Schaefer Hall draws students from all corners of campus as a place to hang out. We are set to graduate over 30 math majors this year, at a school of 2000 students. How do we do it? Come for a visit and we’d be happy to show you — or you can read on.
The lessons of Clarence Stephens’ Potsdam Model and Uri Treisman’s Emerging Scholars Program point to a supportive, academically-focused community as a driving force behind growing a vibrant undergraduate mathematics program. The goal of creating such a cohesive community forms the foundation for our departmental mission, supported by everyone in the department. From the friendly decor in our math lounge, to our espresso machine, to our open door policy, to the poster featuring our majors’ pictures, nearly everything we do helps to create a community that students want to join.
Belonging to the SMCM math community has both benefits and responsibilities. Students regularly get to go to MAA sectional meetings and regional undergraduate research conferences. We continually provide both formal and informal guidance on everything from choosing courses to choosing careers. One of our smaller classrooms is permanently reserved for students’ late-night study sessions. On the responsibility side, every tenure-track search includes both a faculty and a student search committee. Four students meet each candidate for an 8 a.m. breakfast, attend each job talk, and give us valuable feedback about how the candidates interact with students.
In the fall, all SMCM students who take the Putnam Exam (over 30 last year — that’s nearly 1% of all Putnam participants) are treated to dinner at one of our homes, with food provided by all of the math faculty. Every spring we acknowledge students’ contributions to our community with an awards ceremony. With a small budget for refreshments and prizes, we toast academic excellence and service to the department, and we welcome the new group of majors into the community.
Among the cultural changes we’ve made to help draw in students was the establishment of our No Criticism Zone. Borrowed from Jean Bee Chan at Sonoma State, all instructors agree to not criticize students anywhere in public. You will never hear us say “I can’t believe what my Calc student did on this test,” or “Listen to what crazy thing a student said in class!” Not ever. We occasionally vent in private about the things our students write or say, so other students won’t misinterpret our rants as being aimed in their general direction. No single change has done more to promote the feeling of warmth and inclusiveness than removing the criticism from the math wing.
Programs that Engage Students
At SMCM, we’ve started a variety of programs that all aim to engage students in interesting mathematics, while continuing to build community. In most of our classes, undergraduate teaching assistants help professors in class, run review sessions, and help grade homework. Most importantly, they create a bridge between the different cohorts; every first-year Calculus student knows a junior or senior math major and gets to hear the student view of what it means to be a math major. We offer one-credit problem solving seminars both in the fall (as preparation for the Putnam Exam) and in the spring (to attract Calculus students).
The Women in Science House (WiSH), a residential suite for female science and math students founded by one of our colleagues, hosts weekly discussions (WiSH teas) frequented by our faculty. Our active Math Club was voted student group of the year, in part because of the 100+ people who showed up for the Day Pie Eating Contest.
Our Emerging Scholars Program, built on Uri Treisman’s successful model, focuses largely on underrepresented students who historically didn’t made it through our Calculus sequence. The best of those students return for a summer research experience, formerly as part of the MAA’s NREUP, and for the next three years as part of our new NSF-funded ESP-REU. (We’d love to host your top underrepresented students just out of Calculus II — send them our way!)
Working with Students
This goes without saying, but we put a high premium on great teaching. What that looks like varies from class to class, but everybody works hard to engage students. Inspired by the opening line from a Differential Equations book (Blanchard, Devaney, and Hall; “This book is about predicting the future.”) we try to structure every course around a central theme. Not surprisingly, students are more motivated to work in a Calculus course on “the study of change (and everything changes)” than one whose goal is “to finish Chapter 5.”
While our styles range from interactive lectures to extensive group work, common threads stretch through all of our classrooms. We all love mathematics, and we share that passion with our students every day. We know our students’ names early in the semester and frequently interact with them on their turf (at athletic events, the cafeteria, club meetings, theater performances, etc.) Following Bill Vélez’s advice, we acknowledge individual students (especially underrepresented ones) who show a spark of insight, encouraging them to pursue a minor or major in mathematics. In every class we implore everyone to “take one more math class”. Until we teach them induction, they don’t see the implications of this suggestion. By then they’re halfway to a major!
When our students reach their final year, they have built up the background needed to work with us on research projects — or continue the projects they’ve started at REUs across the country. The few heading off to graduate school benefit greatly from this early research experience. But truthfully, we are not trying or even hoping to flood Ph.D. programs with our students. Instead, we want to produce more mathematically literate doctors, lawyers, teachers, biologists, psychologists, politicians, and reporters. And far from watering down the curriculum to achieve these goals, we still require a full year of both Algebra and Analysis for all of our majors.
Among our home-grown ideas are two items carried by many of our majors. At our spring awards ceremony, every newly declared math major receives a Klein Bottle Opener, featuring a “SMCM Mathematics” Klein bottle on the side. We can only imagine the conversations started at student parties when our students use their mathematical tools to crack open a cold one.
All of the math faculty, and a growing number of students, carry Infinity Licenses. Sparked by an exchange with a Calculus student, and realizing that we interpret phrases like “three times infinity is infinity” differently depending on the mathematical expertise of the speaker, we started producing licenses that give the holder permission to use infinity in such ways. Now we encourage our Calculus students to pass their Infinity Test, or risk being pulled over for using infinity without a license!
All of this combines to make a fair amount of work, especially with many of our post-Calculus courses bursting at the seams with 30 or even 40 students. But in the end, that’s a reward in itself — we have the opportunity to share our love of mathematics with a larger audience.
We tell our students that the math major is hard work, but the rewards make it worthwhile. The same could be said of developing a vibrant mathematics program.