SU math department taking positive steps to stem negative trend in number of students pursuing future in math
SU math department taking positive steps to stem negative trend in number of students pursuing future in mathMarch 02, 2006Carol K. Masiclatclkim@syr.edu
Although the mathematics department at Syracuse University teaches about 3,000 undergraduate students every semester, the department has graduated but a fraction of that figure as majors each year. As recently as 1995, that number was as low as 15.
In an effort to strengthen undergraduate recruitment for mathematics, the department is taking several steps to increase its visibility and enhance the experience of students currently majoring in math. Among them: the establishment of an endowed fund to award an annual prize to one or more outstanding undergraduates, hosting dinners for majors at least once a semester, reviving Pi Mu Epsilon (the undergraduate math society), restructuring the curriculum, and making it easier to declare a major.
“We are a serious, high-quality, research-oriented department, but when it came to recruiting future mathematics researchers from the SU undergraduate population, we were striking out,” says Terry McConnell, professor and chair of the mathematics department. “By contrast, SUNY Potsdam, a department that ranks below us in research productivity, was producing around 90 mathematics graduates a year.”
Douglas Anderson, professor and former chair of the department, is involved in helping to build a fund to support recruitment of math majors. The department has what Anderson calls a quasi-endowed mathematics fund, to which alumni, faculty and friends of the department contribute. Part of that funding goes to theArchimedes Prize, an award given each year to recognize an outstanding undergraduate student or students.
“It’s important to recognize the exceptional performance of our undergraduates,” Anderson says. “In and of itself, it’s an intrinsically valuable thing to do. Other departments give prizes to exceptional students — so do we. It is part of our effort to improve the experiences for our undergrads.”
The undergraduate committee nominates students who have done excellent research and maintained a high GPA and then selects a winner. The prize, given in the form of a gift certificate to the SU Bookstore, was first awarded four years ago. The recipient is honored at the department dinner, as well as at Commencement if he or she is a graduating senior.
The math department dinner is hosted at least once a semester at the Goldstein Alumni and Faculty Center. First held in 2003, the dinner is a chance for math majors to get to know each other, their professors and the department chair in an informal social setting. Professor Joanna Masingila has been involved with organizing the events. According to Masingila, the dinner is intended to be a camaraderie-building opportunity as well. The next math department dinner will take place in April, and the Archimedes Prize will be awarded then.
Reviving Pi Mu Epsilon (PME) is another way in which the department is working to enrich the undergraduate major experience. Open to any student who is taking enough courses to declare a minor in the subject, Pi Mu Epsilon was founded in 1914 by Professor Edward Drake Roe, then also the department chair. The Syracuse chapter of PME is the organization’s first chapter, alpha of New York. Today, there are more than 300 PME chapters in the United States and Canada. At SU, PME started as an outgrowth of the SU Mathematics Club. After its founding, Roe served as the national president until his death in 1929. PME continued for the next few decades but went inactive in the 1970s.
The mission of the SU chapter of PME is: to promote scholarly activity in mathematics at the University and in the Syracuse community; to elect members on an honorary basis according to their proficiency in mathematics; to engage inactivities designed to promote the mathematical and scholarly development of its members, including, but not limited to, activities in pure mathematics, applied mathematics and mathematics education; and to take any other measures that will further the purposes stated above. The society sponsors a fun math talk on some Wednesday evenings, a faculty lecture series, problem sessions, math film screenings and origami events. PME also hosts weekly coffee and cookie socials in the reading room of Carnegie Library. Attendance for the events has been strong, and the group hopes to motivate more students with an interest in math to join.
The department has also made changes to the major curriculum that make it easier to declare a major in math and build a sense of community among the majors. New requirements within the major add more structure to the curriculum that will give students a better understanding of what mathematics is about, provide a more directed approach to the curriculum, and prepare them to participate in a senior capstone seminar. The changes also encourage students to take the same two two-course sequences in their junior year, which will enable students to cultivate relationships with each other. Last fall, the department voted to eliminate the required completion of the calculus sequence (MATH 295, 296 and 397). Students may now declare a math major at any time, though the department recommends they complete MATH 275, the gateway to the course major, and consult a mathematics major advisor before doing so. These changes may spur more students to declare the major earlier.
According to Anderson, who has been with the department for 35 years, the popularity of math as a major has been cyclical. “In the mid 1990s, interest in mathematics nationally dropped off considerably,” he says. “It was largely due to the allure of the emerging computer industry — mathematics was competing very hard to get majors.” Other possible reasons for the shortage are the fact that many students are intimidated by the idea of majoring in the subject and are not aware of the diverse career opportunities available to them. The department is working to dispel the myth that mathematics is just for those interested in teaching or research.
Steven P. Diaz, associate professor and a member of the undergraduate committee, points out the importance of encouraging students to major in mathand helping them explore the wide range of career paths they can pursue with a degree in the field. “There have been a lot of reports in the news about the danger of America falling behind in the world of technology. Mathematics is the gateway to technology,” he says. To address that issue, the department now offers articulated programs that enable students to earn dual degrees. Math majors can graduate with dual majors in economics or computer science.
In general, the outlook is optimistic. Five or six years ago, the department started working to increase the number of undergraduate math majors and has doubled its numbers, Anderson says.
Masingila agrees. “I’ve been here since 1992, and our numbers have been going up,” she says. “We’ve actually had to add sections of some courses in the past.”
The department is also looking for ways to keep in touch with its majors once they graduate. Connections with math alumni are vital to the endowment of the department fund and creating networking opportunities for current and graduating students.
Says Anderson: “When I was a junior undergraduate, I was torn between majoring in economics and mathematics. I had a math course that studied infinite series in great detail. The beauty of it overwhelmed me, and I realized I could not do anything else with my life. It was a beautiful intellectual activity that told me I had to join in. Mathematics is just as beautiful now as it was then. It hasn’t changed.”