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New program prepares students to become independent mathematics researchers

May 12, 2008

Judy Holmes
(315) 443-2201

Judy Holmes

Three students in Syracuse University's College of Arts and Sciences have been selected to participate in a new summer mathematics research program. The program -- Mentoring Undergraduates into Mathematical Research -- is aimed at helping students develop skills for intensive, independent study in mathematics; to encourage them to write a senior or honors thesis; and to better prepare them for graduate school. The students are seniors Daniel J. Kocis III and Darien Mitchell-Tontar, and Stephen Hermes '08, who just graduated from SU. The students will work with mathematics professors Douglas Anderson, Dan Zacharia and J. Theodore Cox.

"Typically, undergraduate mathematics courses only introduce students to the subject areas," says Anderson, who created the program with Zacharia. "Our hope is that this new program will provide students with an opportunity to more deeply understand a small area of mathematics and use the skills they learn to expand into other areas. They will also learn to talk about mathematics, and by doing so, change the level at which they understand the subject."

The program, which will be piloted over the next three summers, is inspired by the National Science Foundation's highly competitive Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. The REU program supports student summer research in the sciences and mathematics to encourage more to enter those fields. SU's College of Arts and Sciences Department of Chemistry has been an REU host site for a number of years; 35 students will participate in the program this summer. In addition to gaining hands-on laboratory experiences, REU participants receive stipends to help offset their living expenses.

The mathematics students will participate in a six- to eight-week program of independent study designed and directed by their faculty mentor. After reading and studying materials related to their area of interest, the students will discuss the readings and related topics with their mentors, a process that will help the students learn to think originally about mathematics. The students will also receive small research stipends provided by faculty grants, the iLearn Program and departmental research funds.

"Mathematics is hard, and it takes a lot of effort to learn," Anderson says. "Reading two to three pages of material a day, understanding and digesting it, and then discussing it with one of us is a significant accomplishment. This program is among several departmental initiatives to engage undergraduates in mathematics and make majoring in mathematics more attractive. If we are interested in the future of mathematics in this country, it's important to get undergraduates involved in the discipline."

Both Anderson and Zacharia say the intellectual growth students obtain from the study of mathematics will serve them well in other fields and disciplines, such as economics, engineering and the sciences. The students are excited about the opportunity to focus on their chosen topics without being distracted by other coursework. Hermes, who has been accepted into the mathematics doctoral program at Brandeis University, plans to continue work he started last summer with Zacharia. "I studied homological algebra and related background materials," Hermes says. "It was a great learning experience. I found the subject quite interesting and one that is related to areas I am interested in pursuing for my dissertation."

Mitchell-Tontar, a dual major in math and physics, is looking forward to learning something entirely new in the area of advanced probability. "Professor Cox told me to take a break after finals and come back in a couple of weeks ready to learn new and interesting things," he says. "Math teaches you how to think carefully and critically about a lot of things. Learning how to think critically is what being successful is all about."

Kocis is simply happy for the opportunity to spend the summer doing one of the three things he enjoys most in life -- mathematics, jazz and cooking. A jazz pianist who plays in the Morton Schiff Jazz Ensemble in SU's College of Visual and Performing Arts and in his own jazz band, Kocis couldn't wait to begin reading the books he purchased for his summer research even before he finished final exams. "I'm excited," he says. "I want to start my reading before I meet with Professor Anderson so we can hit the ground running. I think being selected for this program is a huge honor and great opportunity for me to learn how to teach myself."

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