Profiles in Applied Math - James H. Curry

profiles in math

Q: How can students be motivated to study the mathematical sciences?

A: My time as a Program Director at the National Science Foundation in the Division of Mathematical Sciences and my time spent as Chair of the Applied Math department were very insightful years. They gave me a broad sense of the culture and possibilities and the importance of a segment of the mathematical sciences. There is a very valuable and important “information swirl” in the department and I believe that it bodes well for the future of the department as it approaches its 30th year of existence as either a program or as a department. The department has a very professional faculty that routinely shares information and helps one another become more excellent professionals in answering questions, even in anticipating questions.

Q: How can students already within the mathematical sciences be motivated?

A: Being an Applied Mathematics Advisor is sometimes a challenge. While many Academic Advisors feel comfortable describing course content, potential workloads, or even some of the major challenges we cannot predict the future. Often times student who are advanced in their education are not clear about ‘how they want to spend the rest of their lives’. A strategy that APPM uses is for students to develop a four year plan. That encourages students to think about future courses and project forward a year or two. Then at each advising session there is a formative feedback discussion where students recount classes they have take and some of the courses they are looking forward to. In such discussions it is easy to ask about courses they liked, did not like, and ask why? This helps to develop a cognitive scaffold Taking any course offers some risk and students are often very protective of their sense of self or their GPA. My own point of view is try to help freshman students move beyond the high school model, where they seem to be defined by such things and realize that University education means more than having someone tell you “what you need to exactly do’. A goal is for students to become professional with agency in the area that they may want to work in.

Q: What questions should the Applied Mathematics Department ask itself in order to improve its program?

A: A fundamental question for the mathematical sciences may be: How to get more students interested in the mathematical sciences beyond the minimal courses they are required to take? This is a question that has an impact at all levels along the educational pathway. An allied and related question: How to help students transition from outside the university into the university more generally. There is little doubt that the mathematical sciences, its tools, methods, and strategies are increasingly important to help understand and extract patterns from: big data, changes in the earth, and the space we inhabit. Students who can grapple with data, models, and analysis is vital for local, regional, national, and international interest.