25 Aug Facing shortage of U.S. scientists, UW wants to boost math enrollment
MADISON – On the surface, math may seem less glamorous than biology or engineering, but the field, which deals with abstract concepts and equations, is integral to all other scientific fields.
As the United States faces a critical shortage of American scientists, the University of Wisconsin-Madison will lead an effort to attract more students to mathematics, ultimately providing the sciences with a stronger, smarter workforce.
“Mathematics is the key language of all natural sciences,” says Alejandro Adem, a UW-Madison mathematics professor. “Seemingly abstract mathematical concepts play a basic role in subjects such as physics, chemistry, computer science, economics, atmospheric sciences and biology.”
But, as he points out, fewer students – who are future researchers – are taking college-level math courses. Even fewer are choosing to become mathematicians, the people who develop new analytical tools and applications used by other scientists.
“We find that there is intense competition among the disciplines for scientifically inclined students in college,” says Adem, adding, “Mathematics does not often come across as ‘glamorous’ or even an attractive subject to study.”
To address these issues, Adem and his colleagues, Paul Milewski and Ken Ono, will lead the new VIGRE program, or the Vertical Integration of Research and Education. With a five-year, $2.55 million grant from the National Science Foundation, this group, along with others on campus, plan to develop an array of activities that encourage more students to take a closer look at math – both as a foundation for other research and as a profession.
Adem says that the overarching goal of the VIGRE program is to develop an integrated approach to training mathematicians: It not only seeks to integrate academic activities, such as research, teaching and outreach, but also to integrate faculty and students at all levels.
Key components of the program include:
- Enhancing the existing “Wisconsin Mathematics, Engineering and Science Talent Search,” where the UW-Madison Math Department offers full tuition scholarships to top high school math achievers, by establishing greater contacts with K-12 students and teachers.
- Developing “Collaborative Undergraduate Research Labs,” where students learn through experiments and hands-on activities, instead of traditional blackboard learning, for example.
- Offering “Research Experiences for Undergraduates,” a nationally competitive program that provides college students from all over the country with the opportunity to get involved in research and mathematics at UW-Madison.
- Providing graduate student fellowships and postdoctoral positions to develop scholarship, as well as to provide teaching opportunities. The program also will establish internships for graduate students in industry or at national labs research labs.
- Increasing the number of women and minority students in mathematics.
Adem stresses that the goal of the program is to encourage interest in math early on – even as soon as elementary school – and to nurture that interest in the discipline all the way through graduate school.
By providing these research opportunities and hands-on learning experiences with mentors, he says, “We can spark interest and excitement for mathematics throughout the state of Wisconsin and beyond.” And doing so will, at the same time, expand the pipeline for new scholars in math, as well as engineering and the natural sciences.