Mathematics First-Year Seminar appears in campus video

Congratulations to Senior Lecturer Mark McCombs for appearing with some of his students in a new campus video highlighting the First-Year Seminar program. McCombs’ First-Year Seminar, MATH 58 “Mathematics, Art and the Human Experience” explores the relevance of mathematical ideas to art, music, film and literature, while also exploring how these fields in turn influence mathematical thought. More information about this course and other courses that McCombs teaches is available from his department web site.


A brief story about the First-Year Seminar Program appears along with the embedded video on the website of the College of Arts & Sciences: .

Movies from the Chancellors Science Scholars Course

This summer brings to campus the second cohort of students in the Chancellor’s Science Scholar Program. Modeled after the nationally-recognized Meyerhoff Scholars Program at UMBC, the Program aims to provide a critical pathway to promote the success of exceptional students who aspire to become leading research scientists, with a commitment to increasing the representation of underrepresented minorities in the sciences.

This year’s entering Scholars were introduced to Mathematics through a pair of courses, one taught by Professor Rich McLaughlin that drew on activities in the Joint Fluids Laboratory, including use of a new Edgertronic high speed camera (videos below). This camera was purchased by the UNC Summer School specifically for this use, motivating the students’ mathematical investigations in this special class for their first summer in Chapel Hill.

Summer School

Despite an apparent decrease in summer school enrollment across the University, the Department of Mathematics has enjoyed increased demand and expanded its offerings in 2013. With 30 sections enrolling nearly 600 students, the Department-organized summer classes continued to include a suite of popular offerings at the 100-, 200-, and 300-levels, in many cases involving multiple sections of students, as in previous summers. Additionally, in order to address an ongoing increase in our academic year enrollments, and to provide math and science students additional opportunities to take such courses, the Department expanded its advanced undergraduate 500-level course offerings this summer, adding MATH 528 Mathematical Methods for the Physical Sciences I (taught by Department Chair Richard McLaughlin) and MATH 566 Introduction to Numerical Analysis (taught by Professor Jingfang Huang) to the list of 500-level courses taught in previous summers, including 521, 533 and 547. As we profiled previously, Professor Laura Miller also taught the first math class for our inaugural cohort of Chancellor’s Science Scholars. And in addition to these Department-organized courses, Lecturers and graduate students from the Department are also involved in the Summer Bridge program.

Summer classes are notably different from their academic year counterparts in one important aspect: the compressed calendar of 5-week summer session terms. As noted by Dr. Miranda Thomas, one of the Lecturers in the Department, “Summer classes go fast, so students have to stay on top of the sections. The one thing I notice is more people form study groups compared to the academic year. They really utilize helping each other and learning and have a more survival mode: `I will pass’ instead of `let’s see what happens’.”

Elizabeth McLaughlin, another Lecturer in the Department, makes related observations about the schedule, noting that “Teaching summer school has helped me to become a better instructor. The demands on students following a fast-paced schedule require more focus and organization than during the regular semester. My job is to deliver concise, clear lectures as well as help the students lay out a study strategy for success under pressure.”

Summer classes also provide our best graduate student teachers in the Department an opportunity to teach more advanced topics than they are typically assigned in the academic year. Included among these students, Dr. Andrea Overbay, who completed her Ph.D. this Spring and was a recipient of the Department’s Linker Award for instruction by a graduate student, taught MATH 533 Elementary Theory of Numbers. As she notes, “Teaching any math class in compressed form is certainly a challenge, but this is especially true for an upper level class. Although it takes a lot of work, teaching a class over the summer is particularly rewarding. Due to the intense nature of teaching a class over five weeks, you really get the chance to get to know your students. You see them for several hours every weekday and get to struggle right alongside them. And once the five weeks is over, you and your students get to share in the sense of accomplishment of surviving!”

Miller teaches Chancellor’s Science Scholars

Graduate student Shannon Jones helps one of the Chancellor’s Science Scholars

With the arrival of the second session of summer school here at Carolina, we are particularly proud to participate in the new Chancellor’s Science Scholars Program. Modeled after the nationally-recognized Meyerhoff Scholars Program at UMBC, the new Chancellor’s Science Scholars Program aims to provide a critical pathway to promote the success of exceptional students who aspire to become leading research scientists, with a commitment to increasing the representation of underrepresented minorities in the sciences. The Program opens with an accelerated six-week summer residential program including, among other activities, a special Mathematics course designed by our own Professor Laura Miller, who was selected for this important course because of her excellent reputation both as an instructor and as an interdisciplinary scientist.

Miller’s goals for this course, taught as a special section of MATH 295, include identifying and filling possible background deficits from pre-Calculus, and learning (or for some students, reviewing) material from first-semester Calculus, while exploring a variety of applications of Calculus to the natural sciences. Along the way, she also aims for her students to become proficient in the use of MATLAB for mathematical modeling. To accomplish this broad array of outcomes, Miller draws from her previous positive experiences with First Year Seminars as well as her background as a mathematical biologist. In this effort, Miller is assisted by graduate student Shannon Jones. In addition to regular in-class activities, Miller and Jones have some exciting evening educational activities lined up to complement the lectures, including experiments with the Joint Fluids Lab wave tank and wind tunnel.

Congratulations to all of the students selected in the first cohort of the Chancellor’s Science Scholars Program, and to Miller and Jones for their selection for this important educational task.

Prof. Laura Miller in her course for Chancellor’s Science Scholars

Department course enrollments

With the Spring semester already in full swing and students settled and busy with their classes, we can take stock of the course enrollments in the Department of Mathematics. With the increasing importance of quantitative reasoning and of the sciences and mathematics in modern society, we have seen a corresponding increase in the numbers of majors in Mathematics, in the other sciences, and in the total demand for courses in the Department of Mathematics. While the increased enrollments present a variety of challenges on our resources, we continue to strive to give the highest quality instruction that we possibly can across the full range of our courses: from the First Year Seminars (FYS), to the quantitative reasoning and preparatory courses at the 100-level, our 200-level gateway Calculus courses, the 300-level courses in discrete mathematics and differential equations, our upper-level undergraduate courses in the 500s, and our graduate course offerings.

The figures presented here are just a quick snapshot of our course enrollments across these levels this year. These figures only document enrollments in traditional on-campus course offerings, not including undergraduate or graduate research for independent study or the department’s problem solving seminar for undergraduate students. As such, they are only a partial picture of the total educational effort of the Department. Nevertheless, they present a picture of the breadth of those efforts.

As just one example of the effort being made to balance resource constraints while pursuing the most effective course offerings across the curriculum, the sections indicated above that are above enrollments of 50 are special pilot project versions of MATH 118 offered each this year in a setting with a target size of 140. This pilot is funded in part by the Center for Faculty Excellence, with whom we will closely monitor the comparisons between the student outcomes in these 140-student sections versus those taught in a smaller setting.

Special thanks to Senior Lecturer Mark McCombs for taking on the pilot effort in MATH 118, and to our Undergraduate Student Services Manager Susan Stedman for her detailed yet efficient handling of course request forms for all of the students trying to get into our classes.

HHMI-FYS: First-Year Seminars in science for non-scientists

HHMI-FYS courses are special new extensions of the University’s successful First-Year Seminars (FYS) program. FYS courses usually include fewer than twenty-five students and are led by the University’s most distinguished researchers and most skillful teachers, typically focusing on an advanced or emergent topic. The HHMI-FYS courses, supported in part by a grant to UNC-Chapel Hill from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute through the Precollege and Undergraduate Science Education Program, are designed to engage undergraduate students in scientific approaches to major unsolved problems through interaction with instructors who are graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who have been mentored by professors of other FYS courses.

In 2012-13, Mathematics is offering three of these innovative HHMI-FYS courses, run as different sections of MATH 190.

This Fall, Dr. Shilpa Khatri is teaching “Going with the Flow”: the Mathematics of Fluid Dynamics. Before getting her Ph.D. at NYU, Khatri herself was an undergraduate here at Carolina, receiving her bachelor’s degree here in 2003. Now she finds herself on the proverbial other side of the podium, except instead of standing behind a podium she and her students gather around experiments together taking data for quantitative analysis. Her most recent course activity was a field trip to the UNC-Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City, where students traveled by boat to take pressure, temperature and salinity measurements at different estuary locations.

Also this Fall, Ph.D. candidate Austin Baird is teaching Chaos and Population Dynamics. His course introduces students to mathematical models for studying populations and disease spread that students further explore using computational tools under Baird’s tutorial guidance. His students then use these methods to develop arguments for classroom discussion and for presentation across a sequence of course papers.

In the Spring, Ph.D. candidate Dan Orr will teach Cracking the Code: Explorations in Number Theory, introducing students to number theory and its use as the theoretical foundation for modern cryptography (the mathematics of secure communication, including every secure internet transaction).