Early this spring, two students approached me about starting a chapter of Pi Mu Epsilon at Colorado College. PME is the main Mathematics honor society in the US. Started at Syracuse University in 1914, it has now spread to 398 other Mathematics departments (spoiler: CC is now the 399thchapter). When they came to me, I was willing to help the students, but I wasn’t necessarily convinced this was my top priority for the department. My undergraduate department didn’t have PME, and my (very incomplete) understanding of the organization was that its main role was to send certificates and purple and gold honor cords to students with high GPAs. I knew that many departments have a nice talk and awards ceremony once a year for the PME honorees, which I like and have been honored to participate in, but I didn’t have much of a sense of any pressing reason to start a CC chapter. But, as I said, the students were into it, and advising student chapters of SIAM and AWM has taught me that honest, spontaneous, student enthusiasm for an activity is not to be taken lightly, so I try to never let it fizzle when it appears. I started looking into it.
What I found was that PME is actually a pretty neat organization. Aside from the certificates and cords, PME offers students opportunities and assistance, in the form of money to bring in speakers, to run conferences, and for students to attend conferences—especially MathFest, where PME has a whole session of undergraduate speakers and activities for undergraduates to build community and enjoy math. They have a non-trivial application process for new chapters, and want to know that the department is really supporting its undergraduates in mathematical scholarship. They do want details, including things like the last ten mathematics books our library has purchased. Though the students created the bulk of the application, getting this initial petition together took me a fair amount of time, too. This was a great way to avoid doing research on my recent research trip. Luckily, my wonderful colleague Molly Moran stepped in and took over once we had submitted the petition, and the whole experience got a lot more fun. I really like advising student groups, but I like it waaaaaaaay more when I am sharing the joy with a great colleague.
We got the application mostly finished in March, and sent it off to Paul Fishback, Professor at Grand Valley State University and President of the national organization. Since it was so late, it didn’t seem likely that we would be able to get everything together and actually induct members this year, but Paul wanted the senior students who had worked hard on this to be able to reap the benefits, so he and the executive board of PME fast-tracked our application. It moved so fast that we had to hurry to keep up. Somehow, Dr. Fishback managed to arrange a trip to CC to coordinate with his family vacation in New Mexico, and he presided over our induction ceremony on Friday! He gave a great short talk about the history of and opportunities offered by PME, helped us welcome the new members, and had us all say the PME pledge at the end (which feels quite silly but the content of which is entirely positive, inoffensive, and fun, and saying it certainly does make the whole thing feel like a ceremony). The students were really jazzed about the whole thing! In fact, we all were. We are already plotting how to send as many students to MathFest as possible.
The PME application was a bit of work, but (like so many other things in my life) if we had started earlier it would have been very manageable. I came away from the ceremony feeling like our department was now just a little bit more connected to the larger mathematical community, in a way that offers real benefits for the students and is actually focused on undergraduates as a first priority. According to AMS Annual Survey listings, there are around 1350 Mathematics and Statistics departments in the US, so that means about 30% of math/stats departments have a chapter now. So, I would like to throw this out there as a very worthwhile thing for those of you who don’t have a chapter now, as well as those departments whose PME chapters have gone dormant. The organization even has funds specifically targeted to bring speakers to existing chapters that could use a boost. Early-career people with limited time may especially appreciate that this is a well-supported, structured, and fairly simple way to do some service in the department and get involved with students.
This was also a great excuse for my department to have cake and coffee together. I’m pretty much living on cake and coffee for these last two weeks of class, so that was good for me. For everyone teaching this spring, good luck with the end of the year! I’ll write more when I have finished teaching, graded my finals, and had a whole lot of great sleep.