Math department wins national award for exemplary program

On April 10, the College’s department of mathematics and statistics received the 2014 American Mathematical Society (AMS) National Award for an Exemplary Program or Achievement in a Mathematics Department. The prize recognizes the College for excellence in two main areas: teaching and undergraduate research.

According to the AMS, the College “has demonstrated excellence in providing exceptional teaching and research experiences for its students, as well as those in the wider mathematical community.”

The selection committee was led by chair Francis Edward Su of Harvey Mudd College and composed of Aloysius Helminck, Monica Jackson, Suzanne Marie Lenhart, and J.D. Phillips from North Carolina State University, American University, University of Tennessee Knoxville and Northern Michigan University, respectively. After choosing a school, the committee made a recommendation to the AMS council, which published a press release on April 11.

The award was first given in 2006 to Harvey Mudd. Other recipients have included North Carolina State University, Byrn Mawr College and the University of California, Los Angeles among others.

According to Susan Loepp, professor of mathematics, the College’s department is unique in several regards. “Everyone likes math even if they don’t know they do, and we have a larger number who don’t think they are going to major , and even if they don’t major, continue taking more [math classes] than they thought,” Loepp said.

The department boasts several notable alumni. Loepp and professor or mathematics Cesar Silva both pointed to Bethany Mclean ’92, who published the first article exposing the Enron fraud. In an interview with the AMS, Mclean said, “Math taught me inescapable logic. I am not naturally a tough, confrontational person. But when A doesn’t lead to B, I dig in. I can’t get around it any more than I could skip a step in a proof.”

According to Loepp, about 12 percent of students at the College major in math. In addition, the College prides itself on reaching students who are not necessarily math majors. 84 percent of a recent graduating class took at least one class in the math department, said Loepp, 60 percent took a statistics course and 48 percent took a multivariable calculus course, according to the AMS press release. The College’s math department is recognized for “exemplary” teaching. According to professor of mathematics Frank Morgan, professors in the department have received the greatest number of national teaching awards of any other comparable undergraduate department. Six of the eight current full-time faculty have received awards from the Mathematical Association of America, according to AMS.

“Every faculty member has made a distinct contribution,” Morgan said. In addition, the department is renowned for its undergraduate research opportunities. “We are very good at taking amazing students and building them to a point where they can prove original theorems,” Loepp said. Silva added, “We have a large number of undergraduates who do original research in math and publish it.” The department has also established two distinguished summer programs: the SMALL program and the Summer Science Program. The SMALL program, which has received national acclaim, is a competitive program for about 30 students every summer. Silva was instrumental in the development of the program in 1988 and continues to work with students each summer. According to Morgan, Silva “arrived when research was a lower priority and set the modern standard.”

The Summer Science Program, which was pioneered by Ollie Beaver tries to cater to students from a variety of backgrounds. Additionally, the College approved the statistics major this fall, which sets the College aside from many of its peer institutions. “We have a large number of statisticians that allows us to offer a large number of applied math courses,” Loepp said. Other distinct features of the department include required math major colloquia, ice cream social events, an expansive set of course offerings, and speakers. Although there are no official long-term departmental plans, Loepp said that they wan to “continue increasing the number of students who take math and in particular, we want to increase the number of underrepresented students and the number of women majoring in math.” The College received $5000 as part of the award.