M A T H E M A T I C S
The following feature story appeared in the campus publication MOSAIC in November, 1997. Although some of the courses, students, and faculty members referenced in the story may have changed in the meantime, it still provides a full and accurate picture of the Mathematics Department. For the most current course information and faculty listing, we encourage you to visit the program's homepage.
The numbers don't tell the whole story
It is tempting to characterize Trinitys mathematics department by the impressive numbers it can present. The department provides about 10 majors in each graduating class with a rigorous degree program and a low student-to-faculty ratio. At the same time, the department provides about half of Trinitys undergraduates hundreds of students each year with the mathematics and statistics courses that underpin aspects of sociology, economics, biology, and several other disciplines. And heres a number for the Colleges mathematicians to take pride in: four of Trinitys last seven valedictorians have been mathematics majors.
But, as mathematics students at Trinity know, numbers dont tell the whole story. According to Seabury Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy David A. Robbins, who chairs the mathematics department, mathematics students are expected not only to perform mathematical operations correctly but also to think, analyze, and communicate. He offers the example of a lab assignment in his first-year calculus course in which students are given fictionalized tax-table information and a number of related problems to solve. They must learn a number of vocabulary definitions, apply various mathematical functions, provide approximations, and explain their assumptions as part of a 10-page lab report that is treated much like a writing assignment in any other course.
We want to know: What kind of problem-solving tools and arguments can you build? and How can you use available information to make reasonable estimates in a given problem? says Robbins. Were not just looking for answers. What were looking for is solutions.
Hard work, strong support
Finding solutions, according to many mathematics students at Trinity, is rigorous work. It involves spending hours and hours on one homework assignment and is the main reason why collaborative studying initiated by students themselves and encouraged by faculty members is fundamental to the experience and culture of mathematics majors. Says Jedidiah Belcher Northridge 98, Math majors are a small group. Because were small and because the homework is hard, we have to work together. We really bond because of it.
Mathematics faculty members characterize their departmental philosophy as somewhat conservative. In order to obtain a mathematics education that is sufficiently deep and appropriately broad, students must pursue a structured sequence of courses. Its a lot of mathematics, and majors often feel like they live in the mathematics department. All the math majors claim that the second floor of the Mathematics, Computing, and Engineering Center is their second home, says Michelle L. Lombard 98, Presidents Fellow in mathematics and a double major in computer science.
The supportive faculty with its open-door policy is one reason mathematics majors tough out the hard parts, according to Sarah E. Wilbour 99, who double majors in mathematics and religion. All the teachers in the department are wonderful, she says. They make you feel very comfortable. If you are having a problem, they will help you.
Mathematics for the non-major
Mathematics faculty members readily admit to loving mathematics for its own sake, but students can also experience the discipline through courses with broader, interdisciplinary appeal. Associate Professor of Mathematics Paula A. Russo is the director of the Interdisciplinary Science Program, a special two-year honors program for selected first-year students, which allows students to explore linkages between science and mathematics that are not covered in traditional courses. Other mathematics courses offer more of a slant toward real-world applications. Professor of Mathematics John P. Georgess personal interest in public policy was the impetus for the establishment several years ago of a course called Judgment and Decision-Making, which Georges jokingly calls Common Sense 101. A requirement for public policy majors, the course, says Georges, explores how one might size up a particular situation from a quantitative point of view. Taking examples from medicine, law, foreign policy, and other areas, students apply such concepts as utility and risk to make a systematic analysis of situations and to understand the process of formal decision-making.
In Introduction to Mathematical Modeling, a course taught by Lecturer in Mathematics Philip S. Brown, Jr., students apply mathematical models to situations in the life, social, and physical sciences, and in engineering. Brown says that economics majors find it particularly useful but that many others have also creatively applied mathematical modeling to whatever happens to spark their interest. One student recently developed a mathematical model of a beating heart. Another examined random number generation as it applies to the NBA draft lottery. Others have explored catastrophes in wildlife populations. According to Brown, students who love mathematics but who major in another discipline find that his course provides ideas about how they can use mathematics in their chosen field.
Outside of the classroom, the mathematics department is striving to become more of a presence on campus. Were reviving our undergraduate colloquium series this year, says Assistant Professor of Mathematics David Cruz-Uribe. He and Assistant Professor of Mathematics Melanie Stein have used the departmentally sponsored lecture series (cosponsored by the Undergraduate Mathematics Club) to bring a number of speakers to campus.
Also helping to make Trinity a math-friendly place is the Aetna Mathematics Center, which shares faculty members with the mathematics department and, in a complementary and supporting role to the department, offers a number of 100-level courses, administers mathematics testing, and employs student tutors to assist their peers.
Many career paths
Robbins notes that like other liberal arts students, mathematics students have many and varied career options after graduation. While some recent graduates have taken actuarial positions with prominent employers, and others do research and teaching at prestigious graduate programs, many mathematics majors also succeed in medical school, law school, and a number of other areas.
Although he is uncertain about his plans after graduation, Jed Northridge 98 is confident that his foundation in mathematics will serve him well. So much of being a math major comes down to how one perceives things and to having an analytical mind, he says. When he is in the throes of a complex equation he sometimes wonders, When will I ever need to know this? But at the same time, he adds, I know I am training my mind to look for algorithms to solve problems, and these are analytical skills Ill use every day.
-- Leslie Virostek