Summer Research Wrap-up

We’re already back to school here at Hood, but I wanted to take a minute to reflect on my summer undergraduate research experience. Overall it was very positive. My students met all the goals I had for them, got to present at MathFest, and we all had a pretty great time.

I’d mentioned in a previous post that we used Slack extensively to coordinate our research. It ended up being a collaborative lab notebook of a sort, as well as an email replacement. I loved not having to search through email threads to find relevant bits of conversation or documented work. I loved it so much I’m trying to think of how I can force my classes and my department to use it with me.

When one of my students had to leave town for a couple of weeks, we also used an app called Baiboard in conjunction with Google Hangouts to keep in touch. Baiboard served as our collaborative whiteboard while we were chatting on Google, so that we could see what the others were writing without having to try to type things on the fly, or hold paper up to the camera. I will definitely use this app again for things like online office hours.

This summer was also my first experience teaching students to use LaTeX, and it went much better than I expected. They collaborated on Overleaf to write up their results and make their Beamer presentation for MathFest. They even got comfortable with the tikz package for their graphics. The only real help I gave them was a couple old documents of mine to modify, and they picked the rest up incredibly quickly (somehow). One student has a lot of CS experience so I’m not entirely surprised that he adapted well, but even my normally-computer-phobic student became a LaTeX whiz almost immediately. I think at that point in the suIMG_8086mmer they might have just been excited to have problems whose solutions were Googleable.

They wrote their presentation and practiced it for a couple of my department members, who had excellent advice. I haven’t even seen that many undergraduate talks, much less helped anyone write one, so I was very grateful for their experience. We ended up scaling down the scope of the talk a little and let them focus on a few main aspects of their results, which helped the cohesiveness a lot. The students rehearsed more than I ever have for anything in my life, and when the time came to present, they got over their nerves and just killed it. I was beaming.

Bringing students to a conference did present some interesting logistical challenges: spending three days – including about 12 hours in the car – with two rising sophomores meant I definitely overheard more juicy student gossip than I ever needed to. And I just assumed that they’d know how to get around a city on their own, even though they haven’t spent much time away from their parents. This proved false when I got a call asking me to rescue them from across town when they’d gotten on the wrong bus by accident.

But we all had a really good time at MathFest. I enjoyed getting to interact with these students outside of the classroom, and getting to know them outside of their mathematical interests. Turns out they’re pretty cool people! And they loved getting to see aspects of mathematics they’d never been exposed to, though I think they found a lot of the conference just plain overwhelming.

I probably won’t try to apply for this research grant next summer, as I’d rather take a break from managing a group and work exclusively on my own stuff for awhile. But I will definitely be doing this again in the future. I think this was about the best first experience I could have hoped for, and I think my students felt the same.




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National Service through Math

Original design for the "Be Patriotic" poster by Paul Stahr, 1917-18. Public Domain, from Wikipedia

Original design for the “Be Patriotic” poster by Paul Stahr, 1917-18. Public Domain, from Wikipedia

Math-ional Service? Two thoughts lead to one blog today. First: the recent political conventions (and non-stop political coverage for the last year before the conventions) have got me thinking about government and public service. The ideal of government is to serve the public. We all participate in government in a basic way when we vote, but surely there are other ways that citizens (like, say, mathematicians) can serve each other and the world through involvement in government. Second thought: once in a while, I want to do something else. I mean, do a job other than math professor. Occasionally, I want to do ANYTHING but be a math professor. Generally I am just looking for a temporary change, so I can use the skills that make me a good professor in a different way, or towards different goals… like maybe serving the public through working with the US government! Luckily, there are actually opportunities to do this as a professor. This blog is devoted to some government service opportunities for academic PhD mathematicians.

You may have heard of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellowships. These are year-long fellowships open to professional researchers and educators with PhDs from any STEM field (master’s degrees in Engineering are also ok). The program accepts applicants to work in seven different areas to help with government policy related to science in technology. Fellows are based in Washington DC and receive a $75,000-$100,000 stipend plus benefits—this is a viable job for a full year. There are both congressional and executive branch fellowships available. The AMS sponsors one congressional fellowship each year specifically for a mathematician.

People do this program at many different stages of math life—early career, sabbatical, or transitioning out of academic mathematics. This work is right in line with my interests, so I applied for the Science and Technology Policy Fellowship two years ago. The application process is outlined on the website above. If you are chosen as a semi-finalist (I was), you will do a video-conference interview. Before my interview I was asked to write a briefing memo, explaining an area in which my expertise would be helpful to a policy maker. The people on the interview panel were very engaging. We talked about the memo I’d written and my interests in math and public policy. I have to say that the interview was a positive experience in itself. Though I was eventually became a finalist, I received an offer from Villanova at the same time, so I didn’t actually get to participate in the program. However, I think this fellowship is fantastic and I hope I get the chance to do this at some point in my career.

Another opportunity that gets less press is the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) Centers for Communication and Computing summer program for faculty, known as SCAMP. The Center for Communications Research has two offices, one in Princeton, NJ, the other in La Jolla, CA. Each summer these centers run 10-week summer workshops in which visiting and permanent researchers work on problems of interest to the government, including “cryptography, cryptanalysis, algorithms, high-performance computing, information processing, signal processing, and network security, as well as related areas of pure and applied mathematics,” according the CCR website.  I talked to several people who have gone to SCAMPs, and they reported really enjoying the problems and collaborative atmosphere. One thing to consider is that attending these workshops requires obtaining a security clearance, which is not a quick (or necessarily easy) process. It probably makes sense to start working on this early in the fall if you are interested in attending the following summer. If you are interested in joining a SCAMP, email CCR La Jolla or CCR Princeton for more information.

Finally, an opportunity that gets incredibly little press: the Defense Science Study Group (DSSG). I recently heard about it from an alumnus who had a great experience in the program. An internet search made the DSSG seem very mysterious—I found a few references from alumni (including this and this), but very little official information. (Apparently there is a real website, which was down but will hopefully be up again soon.) Here’s the general idea: the DSSG is a group of science and engineering professors that meet/go on adventures for approximately 20 days per year for two years. A new class is chosen every two years from a field of faculty nominated by their home universities. The participants learn about national security issues, from active US government security personnel. As their brochure explains, “Group members interact with top-level officials from the Department of Defense (DoD), and other Government organizations, various Intelligence agencies, The White House, and Congress. Visits to military bases throughout the United States provide members with a unique perspective of operating forces and allow DSSG members to meet with senior commanders responsible for our nation’s defense. Tours of defense laboratories and industrial facilities provide further insight into the technical dimensions of national security.”

The goal of this program is to forge connections between scientists and engineers and the national security community, and to encourage academic scientists and engineers to contribute their knowledge to addressing national security issues. It is administered by IDA and sponsored by the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA). For a math professor with strong national security interests, who is interested in doing things like flying in military planes and visiting aircraft carriers, this program would be a perfect fit. However, individuals can’t directly apply for this program. To get into the program, you need to be nominated by someone, usually an official at your university (like a provost). While some institutions have internal application processes, many do not. Some provosts may not know about this opportunity or may not have considered nominating a mathematician for it. With that in mind, the alum I talked to suggested that if you are interested you should definitely contact your provost about a nomination. Recruitment for the next two-year class begins this September/October.

Of course, programs like these are not the only math-related ways to serve/effect change in government. You could always just go to Congress, Mr. Smith style. The Association for Women in Mathematics is doing this (okay, visiting congressional offices, not addressing Congress). In 2015, the AWM leadership and student chapter members visited Capitol Hill offices to meet with congressional staffers. Georgia College students, from a chapter led by Dr. Marcela Chiorescu, describe their group’s experience in DC in this press release. Villanova’s AWM student chapter is hoping to visit congressional offices this December—so excited about this!

Are there more programs out there? Other ideas on how to serve or get involved? Let me know in the comments!

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What is the scholarship of teaching and learning, anyway?

Like my co-blogger, and probably many of you, I’ve not been writing as much as I hoped this summer. One of my goals is to finally wrap up this project I’ve done on improving my students’ calculus understanding that’s been on the back burner for a few months.

But instead of doing that right now, I thought I’d summarize what I learned before I set out to do this project.

I have basically no formal training in mathematics education. I never took anything close to a research methods class, and somehow even dodged elementary stats until I ended up teaching (and loving) it. But I’m interested in helping my students learn better, and to make sure I’m actually doing that, I want to try to measure that somehow. And as long as I’m doing that, I might as well write up my results so other people can try what works and avoid what doesn’t.

What I’ve described is basically my understanding of the definition of the scholarship of teaching and learning (or SOTL for the acronym crowd). It contrasts somewhat with research in undergraduate mathematics education (RUME) in that it’s perhaps less formal and less theoretical, and more likely to be done by a mathematician whose primary research may not be mathematics education.

b1ddb15c77b5ddbf6f033bc1eee1aed6My main guide in forming and executing this project has been the excellent book by Jaqueline Dewar and Curtis Bennett, Doing the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. It covers everything from designing a reasonable project to finding an appropriate journal. The book also gives example surveys and rubrics that have been extensively used in other studies, explains how to deal with the lack of an ideal control group (whatever that is), how to deal with qualitative data, and includes many example SoTL projects to study.

One aspect of the work I was concerned about, but which turned out to not be a big deal, was getting through the Institutional Review Board (IRB) process. Pretty much any study on humans requires adhering to strict safety, disclosure, and privacy rules. Even starting this process requires fairly lengthy online training sessions first that explain the process and the relevant laws. There are a couple of different ones, and you should check with your institution to see which one they require. At my previous institution my chair had to go through the training as well.

After the training, IRB approval requires some significant paperwork which again depends on your institution. The nice thing with typical SoTL research is that our experiments usually deal with data like test scores or surveys, and nothing invasive or potentially harmful. This means every IRB I’ve written so far has fallen under the Exempt category. That doesn’t mean it’s exempt from all paperwork, but it usually means the process is significantly shorter and easier. Every study I’ve submitted has required very little revision and been pretty quick, but again, this will depend strongly on your institution and who is on the board. I found my friends in psychology and sociology to be very helpful in writing these applications.

In future posts I’ll go through how I went about reviewing known literature, designing my experiment, collecting and coding my data, writing it up and (fingers crossed) getting it published.

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