Thursday, May 22, 2014

Hooking the Student

a guest post by Jeff Rushall

Six years ago, I told my chair that our Department of Mathematics and Statistics here at Northern Arizona University needed something new to inspire our majors. I suggested a “Brown Bag Seminar,” structured much like what many of us encountered while in college: a one-hour lunchtime colloquium targeting undergraduates. I chose several topics that I felt would “hook” students, including Cantor sets, magic squares, and Latin squares. The brown bag seminars began in the fall of 2008, with expectations—at least on my part—very high. The rooms, times, and topics were set. The advertising flyers were posted. I was convinced that the combination of my wit and charm together with some sexy mathematical content would be a huge hit. 

I was very wrong. 

The audiences were small; after an opening crowd of 18, the attendance numbers slowly dwindled to single digits by the end of that fall semester. 

Down but not out, and still convinced that the basic idea was a good one, I went straight to the main source of my inspiration: my students. I sat down with three of my favorite students (to protect the innocent, I’ll call them Kathryn, Charlie, and Natalie) and picked their brains about how to organize my vision (in retrospect, this was the best idea I’d had in years!). These and other students made the following suggestions:

  • Hold the seminar on a Friday afternoon. 
  • Give the gathering a snappier name. 
  • Limit the talks to about 30 minutes. 
  • Expose the audience to more than just math to entice their attendance, such as…
  • Interview a faculty member each week.  
We retooled, and in January of 2009, FAMUS (the Friday Afternoon Mathematics Undergraduate Seminar) was born. Today, 11 semesters later, FAMUS is thriving. Our weekly gathering hosts an average of 35 audience members, and although several faculty and graduate students attend each week, the majority of attendees are undergraduates. 

Selecting talk topics for FAMUS is without question the easiest aspect of organizing and running FAMUS. The proper balance of talks on mathematics (ranging from the Tower of Hanoi to Euler bricks to the St. Petersburg paradox), on mathematicians (Hilbert, Ramanujan, Erdös, to name but three), on mathematics education (flipped classrooms, the mathematics “common core” of Ireland, etc.) and various math-themed topics (AP Calculus exams, summer projects/trips/activities of our faculty, international teaching opportunities in mathematics) seems to keep things fresh. And nearly all FAMUS talks end with open questions, designed to encourage students to ponder the possibility of beginning some sort of undergraduate research or independent study project. 

But for many students, the highlight of FAMUS is the weekly interview of a faculty member. Structured à la the interviews on the popular Inside the Actors Studio series on the Bravo Network, the list of 16 questions remains the same each week. These questions and responses paint a broad portrait of the guest faculty member, and this is followed by a closing open-question-and-answer session that can last up to 30 minutes. 

During the last 5.5 years, FAMUS audiences have ranged from a low of 15 (a dreadful weather day) to 71 (a former NAU graduate student and current research fellow at Harvard was the guest speaker). The 133 FAMUS gatherings have been evenly split: one third featured undergraduate presenters, one third have been given by fellow faculty and graduate student talks, and one third have been my own talks. 

FAMUS does take time: planning and setting up the semester schedule, acquiring appropriate snacks (coffee and cookies are for our departmental faculty seminars; we serve popcorn, chocolate, and student-friendly beverages like Mountain Dew), and promoting and advertising has its share of twists. And yes, preparing appropriate and entertaining talks is not a quick process. But the results speak for themselves. Of course, injecting some humor into FAMUS talks helps. For instance, our recent semester-ending FAMUS featured a slide containing just some of the cartoon images that have appeared in past presentations (can you spot the picture of one of the usual authors of this blog?). 

Have we hooked students? Yes. Do all of our majors attend FAMUS? Not remotely! But students who regularly show up at FAMUS each Friday generally refer to FAMUS as their favorite part of the week. In fact, regular attendees at FAMUS help to advertise, set up, clean up, and they do so happily, even late on a Friday afternoon. And FAMUS is influencing our student population: We are attracting current math majors at our weekly gathering, while at the same time enticing prospective math majors and minors, and promoting undergraduate research, all while simultaneously advertising careers in mathematics, most notably opportunities to attend graduate school in mathematics, statistics, and mathematics education. 

Kathryn, Charlie, and Natalie helped us start something special here in our department in the spring of 2009. Notably, none of these three students were mathematics majors when they began their undergraduate careers at NAU, but FAMUS worked its magic on each of them, as they all graduated with undergraduate degrees in mathematics. All three chose to pursue graduate careers in mathematics, and all are at various stages of Ph.D. programs at rather different locations (Kathryn at Bryn Mawr, Charlie at the University of Montana, and Natalie at the University of Colorado at Boulder). 

I cannot say that every department needs something like FAMUS, and I do not claim that what we have created is something that can be duplicated in a like manner at other institutions. But I can say that FAMUS has become engrained in our department culture. Perhaps most importantly, FAMUS has provided our students with something that they perhaps didn’t even know that they wanted or needed: an activity that helps to foster a sense of community among our undergraduate majors, and a place to become exposed to the cool kind of math that hooked many of us as we began our own march towards careers in mathematics. 

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