Intercom Online......November 5, 1998

Working the numbers

Douglas N. Arnold, right, distinguished professor of mathematics, discusses an equation
with graduate student Alexandre Madureira. Arnold is a co-investigator on a project
funded by the National Science Foundation that is expected to integrate
math at all levels and make the subject more accessible.
Photo: Greg Grieco

Math department gains funding to
ready future generations of scientists

It might sound like a tough job for some, but faculty in the mathematics department are gearing up to invigorate students about working with numbers. In fact, their plans to make Penn State a leading training center for the next generation of mathematical scientists and engineers have dovetailed nicely with a more than $2.2 million National Science Foundation grant, combined with cost-sharing funds from the University. In total, about $3 million has been allotted to the project.

The NSF funding, more than five times larger than the next-largest grant the department has ever obtained, will be used over a five-year period to support a program titled "Vertical Integration of Research and Education in the Mathematical Sciences" (VIGRE). Penn State is among just six institutions selected to inaugurate the VIGRE program beginning in July 1999. The others are the University of Colorado, Columbia University, Harvard University, Princeton University and the University of Washington.

VIGRE will help the department to move forward an integrated program of training initiatives at all levels, including K-12 outreach initiatives. The concept of vertical integration means constructing undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral programs to be mutually supportive. It also means the program should couple research and teaching to promote mathematical literacy across the full breadth of the University. Additional objectives of the program are to form and strengthen linkages with government, industry and other academic or private sector areas.

"The VIGRE project consists of a number of integrated initiatives involving mathematics research, education and training," said Gary Mullen, head of the Department of Mathematics, who will lead the project. "It will engage a large portion of the mathematics faculty and will encompass all the major research areas in the department."

The project was developed by faculty throughout the Department of Mathematics. More information about the Penn State VIGRE grant can be found on the Web at .

As part of its VIGRE grant, the math department will inaugurate a summer program of research experience for undergraduates under the mentorship of department faculty. The grant also allows the department to perform extensive review and revision of its undergraduate curriculum to emphasize the relation of mathematics to other scientific disciplines and industrial applications. In addition, the grant permits the solidification and expansion of a new program known as MASS (Mathematics Advanced Study Seminars), which provides an intensive learning environment for talented undergraduates throughout the United States.

"The VIGRE grant also will allow us to establish a program of industrial summer internships for graduate students, and to strengthen the educational and outreach missions of our unique Pritchard Fluid Mechanics Laboratory," said Douglas N. Arnold, distinguished professor of mathematics and a co-investigator on the grant project. The Pritchard lab allows students to conduct high-precision experiments involving the motion of fluids and to test the applicability of complex mathematics to common occurrences. It has been used to make several significant discoveries which have sparked both numerical and theoretical developments.

"We also will add five new positions each year: two new S. Chowla Research Assistant Professorships and three VIGRE Graduate Traineeships," said Arnold. "These positions will enable us to recruit top U. S. candidates to our faculty and graduate program."

Among the project's outreach activities is a program being developed by Dmitri Burago, associate professor of mathematics, and Ken Ono, assistant professor of mathematics, for interested students at the State College Area High School. Burago and Ono are developing an extensive set of thought-provoking and challenging problems whose solutions do not require advanced mathematical skills. They plan to use these questions during regular small-group discussion sessions with the students to emphasize problem solving and the development of logical and mathematical thinking.

"Overall, our goals for Penn State's VIGRE program are to prepare undergraduate students, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows for a broad range of career opportunities," Arnold said.

In addition to Mullen and Arnold, co-investigators on the project are Nigel Higson, professor of mathematics; and Anatole Katok, Raymond N. Shibley professor of mathematics.

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Updated by Chris Koleno