Math modeling contest
University Week: Brotman Award for the Department of Mathematics
[The following article was published in University Week, the faculty and staff newspaper, in recognition of the selection of the Department for a Brotman Award for Instructional Excellence. The award is given by the University to academic units or groups "who have achieved excellence in teaching and fostered excellent learning throughout a program of study." We thank University Week and Rob Harrill for permission to include the article.]
In some ways, the Department of Mathematics at the University of Washington is like an octopus.
The main body is firmly grounded in the department's headquarters, where math majors pursue the intricate dance of mental gymnastics that advanced mathematics provides. But its arms reach into and support numerous other disciplines on campus – physics, computer science, electrical engineering and statistics, to name a few – where math plays a foundational role.
"Math provides a basis for most of what we do in the sciences," according to Selim Tuncel, department chair. "As such, our faculty interact with students from across campus, helping prepare them to pursue their individual paths."
A number of strategies implemented over the years have helped the department do an increasingly better job of supporting students as they pursue math-intensive degrees university-wide. As a result, the department has won a 2005 Brotman Award for Instructional Excellence.
One of the key changes has been a revamping of the department's calculus courses, which provide an instructional backbone for the university's science and engineering students. Class size has been greatly reduced, training for teaching assistants beefed up and communication among instructors enhanced. As a result, failure rates are down while retention rates and enrollment are up. To implement the changes, faculty members agreed to shoulder a 10-percent increase in their teaching load.
That, according to Werner Stuetzle, is one of the most powerful indications of the mindset in the department.
"(They) accepted an increase in teaching load to support the reform," said Stuetzle, acting chair of the statistics department. "It is hard to imagine a more concrete and convincing demonstration of commitment to undergraduate education."
An undergraduate research program exposes students, both in and outside the department, to important issues in the field, said David Notkin, chair of the Department of Computer Science & Engineering. And the math department's K-12 programs are unique for a major research university.
"They help instill a love of mathematics in our pre-college youth that will serve them well no matter what field they enter," Notkin said.
The department also pays close attention to those who wish to make mathematics their chosen field of study. The honors sequence of courses focuses on building close mentoring relationships. Perhaps one of the most vivid evidences of success is student participation in the annual international Mathematic Contest in Modeling.
Under the guidance of Professor Jim Morrow, the department has placed five teams in the contest's top bracket in the past four years, holding its own with math powerhouses like Harvard, Yale, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California at Berkeley. After each win, Morrow has received calls from colleagues at institutions around the world who want to know his secret, Tuncel said.
The student outreach undertaken by Morrow, Virginia Warfield and other faculty members is gaining outside notice, he said.
"We had our 10-year review this year, and the group that made the site visit stressed how unusual it is for a large university to have the level of closeness and involvement that we have here," he said.
Growing interest indicates that students are noticing the effort. The number of math majors reached 300 at the end of the 2003-04 academic year, up from 205 the year before and 153 the year before that. And majors in the Applied and Computational Mathematical Science program, an interdisciplinary degree created in 1997 and jointly sponsored by math, applied math, statistics, and computer science and engineering, currently number 180.
Students both in and out of the department say solid math instruction plays a critical role in their academic success.
Scott Moon, a major in aeronautical and astronautical engineering, said he knew his chosen path would require intensive mathematics and he was apprehensive. Several courses offered by the department put his fears to rest.
"Applying the mathematical concepts I had learned from the math department, I was easily able to transfer my calculus skills to my various aerospace engineering prerequisite courses," he said. "These classes allow non-math major students to easily transfer mathematics skills to their respective fields of study."
Ravi Shroff, a senior in mathematics and economics, talks of how the curriculum and instructors' presentation of it captivated him and eventually led him to consider graduate work in the field.
"I don't think I had ever thought of math as 'beautiful' or 'amazing,'" he said of his experience in an upper division math course. "I actually remember saying, 'Wow, that's crazy' when I found out that in a non-Hausdorff topological space a sequence could have two distinct limits."
Notkin sums it up: "The math department is a jewel in the crown of the University of Washington."