Undergraduate Research as an Equalizer: MAA Invited Paper Session on Inspiring Diversity in Mathematics: Culture, Community, and Collaboration, talk #5

Alicia Prieto Langarica of Youngstown State University, who also co-organized this session, started her talk by telling us that she wouldn’t use the words “diversity” or “equity” or “Latinx” etc. and challenged us audience members to think about why she wouldn’t be using these words.

I’m a little frazzled right now because I live-blogged the last two talks and I ran off to see a friend talk in the HBCU session, but his flight was delayed so then I ran back to go to this session.  Alicia is trying to push the audience into talking and interacting and it is delightful.

Here are posts #1 and #2 in this series:

MAA Invited Paper Session on Inspiring Diversity in Mathematics: Culture, Community, and Collaboration, talk #3

MAA Invited Paper Session on Inspiring Diversity in Mathematics: Culture, Community, and Collaboration, talk #4

Undergraduate Research as the Greatest Equalizer

She opened with a series of statistics: about half of the people who intend to be math majors end up dropping out, and about 10% of math B.A.s end up going on to get a math Ph.D. (but not really, because the number of math Ph.D.s also includes international students. So the actual ratio is much lower.)

If the math major is preparing students to be academic mathematicians, then of course students won’t major in math. But people in industry do want mathematicians and students who can think logically and mathematically competently and who can translate real life problems into math problems, who have communication skills who can work with others.  So how can we mathematicians help students prepare for careers in industry, by using our tools of mathematics research?

Alicia created cross-disciplinary undergraduate research teams with students from various majors. It’s great for mathematicians to talk to people in other disciplines, and it’s great for students who end up in industry to talk to people in other fields.  She also mixes up years to encourage students on how to be a mentor and how to be a mentee- an idea called vertical mentorship.

(Also Alicia talks really fast! I try to include quotes throughout these posts but phew I don’t know how to get hers.  This is a paraphrase:)

When we do undergraduate research, we often think about the mathematics.  But you can think about all of this stuff and still have really good mathematics.

She also does student-led research. Her students pick their topic or at least general area, and she tries to treat them more as collaborators than as lecturees and she a lecturer.  She joked about bringing in a statistics graduate student so she doesn’t have to learn statistics.

Other skills students develop from her undergraduate research projects:

  • Students learn to present their problems to different audiences
  • They write about the research, and about their experiences doing and presenting their research (did you, reader, know that I’m here because I wrote a blog about my graduate school experiences? In a long circuitous route.)
  • They learn to collaborate with other mathematicians, among other disciplines.  They learn to use vocabulary that everyone can understand, not just mathematicians. (Yen: shout out to ComSciCon for graduate students to learn how to communicate to non-math, non-science audiences!)
  • They learn to deal with ‘red tape’, which is something that many people try to shield students from. But it’s good for them to know about it!
  • Students participate in the academic community and make connections with others who can understand their experiences through graduate school. (Yen: the EDGE program was huge for me to finish graduate school because I had peers who understood what I was going through.)

An audience member asked how Alicia finds these non-math major students.  She said that since she teaches calculus, she can find a lot of beginning students and ‘force’ them to do research with her.

She said that faculty members don’t need to do anything differently, just add a few more students.  It doesn’t harm students who go into academia to talk to people who aren’t, and it’s great for students who are going into industry.

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