Exponential growth: Students’ summer math experience opens minds, doors

September 21, 2015

Students' eight-week summer research program in mathematics opened minds ... and doors.

Last summer Jamie Jeffries scooped popcorn and handed out movie tickets, working to save up money for her next semester.

This year, the junior created her own summer blockbuster—a math research project that was accepted to a prestigious undergraduate research conference. And she did this while earning funds to pay for tuition and books.

Jeffries said she’s thankful for her traditional summer jobs in the past, but that this year’s experience did more than help her earn cash: The National Research Experience for Undergraduate Program (NREUP) gave her a new outlook for her future.

“I learned so much about research, mathematics, science and myself. Many professors even ate lunch with our group, and during these meetings they shared stories about their graduate school experiences and current research projects,” she said. “It’s strengthened my interest in earning a Ph.D.”

The program, started on campus by Mathematics Assistant Professors Yunus Zeytuncu and Hyejin Kim this summer, is an eight-week workshop where eight students worked intensely on a mathematical problem of their choice.

Each student had faculty support, received room and board at The Union at Dearborn, a $500 per week stipend, and more.

At the completion of their research, the students—who were grouped in twos for their research projects— applied to present at several conferences. Jeffries presented “The Isoperimetric Inequality in 3D” at the Young Mathematicians Conference (YMC) at Ohio State University, where only 45 of the 200 entries were accepted.

“I was thrilled that other people found my research important,” said Jeffries, whose research partner was Brandi Wingate, a sophomore mathematics student. “Other than attending the YMC, my favorite part of the program was developing a valid proof for my project. I had worked diligently throughout the course of the program in an effort to attain that goal. It was very gratifying to produce something tangible.”

To fund the campus’ new summer program, Zeytuncu and Kim applied for and received two grants—$28,000 from the National Science Foundation/Mathematical Association of America and $12,000 from the campus’ Office of Research and Sponsored Programs.

Zeytuncu, who first learned about the NREUP when he was in graduate school at OSU and watched YMC presentations, said he remembers the transition between undergraduate and graduate school and wanted to prepare his students for the next step.

“Focusing on a problem and presenting what you’ve found is what they will be doing in graduate school or working in the STEM industry,” he said. “With research, there is an unknown component and that’s frustrating. I remember the transition to graduate school. It was a serious paradigm shift for me. You have to start to think differently. Be more patient. We want students to feel that stress and realize that they can get through it. Things don’t always come easy; and when you finally find the solution, it’s all worth it.”

He said in addition to research, the students each put together a portfolio, wrote personal statements and learned about the graduate school admission process.

Zeytuncu said the plan is to make the program a summer staple on campus and has applied for additional grants.

“We saw these talented students grow and become more confident during the process. They now know more about the opportunities out there in the STEM fields,” he said. “We’d like to do that for as many of our students as we can.”

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