*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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