I remember very clearly my first few days as one of the newest members of the faculty in my department. My colleagues were very welcoming, but I was really impressed with the warmth of the students’ reception. Many visited my office just to chat, get to know me and to share some of the cool topics they were studying: the ubiquitous nature of the Fibonacci sequence, the life and mathematics of celebrated women mathematicians, how mathematics changed the game of baseball, and so on. Then, one day, a bubbly undergraduate stopped by, eager to talk about his topic on the history of magic squares. As he rambled on, a deluge of ideas flooded my mind. A year earlier, I had attended a research conference/workshop on solving polynomial systems of equations and I was captivated by a talk on magic squares given by a graduate student at the cusp of finishing her doctoral studies. A light went off immediately: this was my chance to really engage this student. And so, I asked, “How would you like learning even more about these magic squares and perhaps contributing something new about them?”
Because of the wealth of experience I had as an undergraduate researcher and as a teaching assistant for a highly successful summer undergraduate research program, I was ready, eager and willing to start directing undergraduate research. Unfortunately, however, very few of my colleagues had had these rewarding opportunities and some of them have expressed a desire to engage their students in a similar fashion, but are reluctant because they did not know how or where to begin. I now know that this is not uncommon.
Indeed, the number of undergraduates engaging mathematical sciences research has increased dramatically the past few years. Indicators of this growth are the size of the undergraduate poster session at the Joint Mathematics Meetings (e.g., over 300 posters at the 2013 meeting), the number of mathematics Research Experience for Undergraduates (at least 65), and the recent creation of journals devoted to mathematics undergraduate research (e.g., Involve at UC Berkeley). This success is in contradiction to the view held by some today and many in the past that “undergraduates cannot do mathematics research, because there is so much background needed to understand and successfully tackle a problem.”
Today, many mathematics faculty, some motivated by the success of colleagues with undergraduate research, want to begin their own undergraduate research program, but are hesitant to do so, because they are unsure how to get started. i.e., how to find/choose tractable problems, how to recruit students, how to get funding or release time for the endeavor, how to guide students towards a solution without solving the problem for them, etc.
For these reasons Herbert Medina, Professor of Mathematics at my undergraduate alma mater, Loyola Marymount University, and I decided to organize a panel on the subject for the upcoming 2014 Joint Mathematics Meetings in Baltimore, MD. The specifics of the panel are as follows:
Panel Title: Directing Undergraduate Research: How to Get Started
Time & Place: Thursday January 16, 2014, 2:35 p.m.-3:55 p.m. in Room 316 of the Baltimore Convention Center
Panelists: Michael Dorff, Brigham Young University; Angel Pineda, California State University Fullerton; Joyati Debnath, Winona State University; Sandy Ganzell, St. Mary’s College of Maryland
The panelists, all having enjoyed success in directing undergraduate research, will address these questions and provide concrete advice on how to get started with directing undergraduate research. Hope you can join us!
But before then, if you have suggestions or specific questions/comments/suggestions about undergraduate research, please enter them in the responses section below.