Attracting more students to the math major – with shiny objects

The math major is not always the most popular one, especially at small liberal arts school like mine (there are some exceptions, of course). There are many people out there who think about how to attract more students to the major and how to retain them. Among the successful ones, I count Michael Dorff, from Brigham Young University, as one of the pioneers. I took a short course from him in the 2011 Joint Math Meetings, and there were a lot of suggestions that I thought were excellent. My favorite: create a sense of community. In this post, I will focus on how to achieve this by giving students stuff.

There are, of course, many ways in which one can interpret this “sense of community”. A standard one is to have some sort of “math club”, which may feature invited speakers, social events, math games and competitions, or showing a math related movie. We call ours the “Math Council”, which makes me think of something out of Harry Potter (which is a good thing!). This year, we had a Pi Day party, an info session about senior thesis and senior seminar, a math induction ceremony for the new math majors, and we showed the movie Between the Folds (and did some origami afterwards). I know that at BYU they even have a mandatory seminar about what it means to be a math major. They get invited speakers and panelists and do all sorts of fun math things. In Berry College they call their math club The Dead Poets Society, which is a great film to draw inspiration from.

Our Math Induction key chain

But one thing that has struck me, from Michael Dorff’s course and from my own experience, is the realization that stuff (I mean things, objects, gifts, trinkets) can help accomplish this feeling of community. For example, for our math induction ceremony we made key chains that simply say “Bates Math Induction”. The students love these! They wear their key chains with pride, as a badge of their official induction into “math land”.

Michael Dorff in his course talked a bit about the T-shirts they design for the BYU math majors. They have several different designs, but my favorite has a picture of Einstein in the front and says “Be creative”, and in the back it has a short blurb about how creativity is important in mathematics. Who wouldn’t want to wear that? And how cool would it be to say that you’re a math major when people ask you about your T-shirt? He said they also get good deals from the printers because they order so many at once. Another consequence of this is that if your T-shirts are cool enough, other people will want to wear them!

Here at Bates, we had a contest for designing a T-shirt for the math majors, and the math council decided the winner. I wore my shirt yesterday and I loved answering questions about it. The design (by a Freshman!) is really catchy, simple, and provocative. On the front, it simply says “1+1=0″. On the back, it says “When you’re in Z_2″ (and yes, I would have used F_2, but let’s not get into that), and has the Bates bobcat and below “Bates Mathematics”. These aren’t free, but the math department subsidized the cost, so the students only have to pay $5 per shirt.

We also make T-shirts for our Introduction to Proofs class, and these are designed and then voted on by people in the class. As we all know, democracy doesn’t always yield the best results, so the T-shirt designs are all over the place. Some years have great ones, other years have weird, mathematically absurd, sexual innuendos.

For the last few years, we have given our graduating seniors a $10 gift certificate to Dover books. This was great ten years ago, but each year the selection of books they can buy for that amount has been reduced. This year, we’re considering changing to some other type of accessory (like hats or scarves).

We are not the only ones to shower our students with gifts. I know many math departments have their own T-shirt designs, too. St. Mary’s College of Maryland (at least as of a few years ago) has these great key chain/bottle opener combos. The clever part is that on the bottle opener is a picture of a Klein bottle, so it’s a Klein bottle opener! Awesome, right? At Vassar, they give mugs to all the students who take the Putnam exam (with one of the Putnam problems on them!).

Of course, I don’t mean to say that this is the only way to attract majors or create a sense of community, just that it is one thing I have found to be pretty effective. But what do you think? Do you think that these things help contribute to the sense of community? Do you think this in turn contributes to the general well-being of the math majors, and attracts more people? What gifts do you give to your students? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!


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One Response to Attracting more students to the math major – with shiny objects

  1. jason cooper says:

    fun blog; if i had the time, I’d love to be a higher-mathematics student. I’m rather busy being a father and full-time web-developer-analyst.

    I stumbled across your blog while searching for “interesting things you can do with math”.

    I wanted to ask after a recommendation from you – I wanted to design a math curriculum in a single text that would span multiple years. And, instead of designing it from small to large, I wanted to design it backwards – have the first lesson be about doing something real-world but hard, and then have the sub-steps be their own chapter – all the way to something simple. That way, the student would have a perpetual sense that the math was building up to something instead of having to take it on faith and occasionally stumbling upon practical application.

    So, as someone who is actively using it on a regular basis: what would your recommendation be as to the “hard” first lesson.

    I’m thinking to course would last over about a four-semester arc, so perhaps would take two full years to complete at a “normal” pace, and should initially start at the level of either Algebra or Pre-Algebra.

    I had thought to have the theoretical student audience derive the length of time a body had been dead using a single-variable differential equation – this seemed something directly usable (though morbid) and less mathy than some of the other more engineering-oriented applications of math.

    Thank you for your time,

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