Through a new program at Westfield State University, four senior math majors in January 2015 presented their individual research at the largest annual meeting of mathematicians in the world.
The opportunity to conduct research and present at the national Joint Mathematics Meeting in San Antonio came through a Westfield State program called Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU). The four students, hand-picked by faculty, spent the a year in the program aimed at preparing them for more complex mathematical work and graduate school. The students were Rachael Fountain ’15, Jacob Goodreau ’16, Zachery Lancto ’15 and Jessica Young ’15.
Westfield State professors in the Mathematics Department, Brian Jennings, Ph.D., Maureen Bardwell, Ph.D., Karin Vorwerk, Ph.D., and John Judge, Ph.D., were each paired with one of the students as a mentor. The program included two independent studies and seven weeks during the summer devoted to math research.
The chance for students to present their findings at a highly competitive conference featuring 6,000 mathematicians and students from all over the world was an “eye-opening” experience, Jennings said. The meeting featured members of both the Mathematical Association of America and the American Mathematical Society.
“This was their first time being immersed in the larger mathematics community. It was impressive for them to see just how many people are studying in this field and the immense variety of topics they could learn more about,” he said. “It was a great chance for them to talk to people about what they do. It was a really powerful experience.”
About 30 years ago, conducting research as an undergraduate and presenting at conferences was not as big a deal as it is today, Jennings said. “Today people are recognizing the skills and the knowledge and just the bigger picture perspective undergraduate students get from engaging in a protracted research project. The student is aware that the person running the class knows what the answer is,” he said. “Now they are able to see how the sausage gets made for actually going from not understanding something to figuring it out.”
“The REU program provides students with skill sets that are going to be valuable not only later on, but also gives them specifics they can talk about in an interview with some passion,” Jennings said.
Young’s project involved the study within a broad branch of mathematics known as abstract algebra within which she studied the mathematical structure of lattice order groups. Fountain’s research explored the surprising connection between mathematics and music, including finding innovative ways of picturing the mathematical structure behind the experience of appreciating music. For Goudreau, his research focused on a systematic study of how certain classes of quantum states concentrate in phase space. Lancto’s project involved studying the properties of matrices, which related to the famous Fibonnaci sequence by using techniques in graph theory and extending the concepts of matrices to higher dimensions.
Jennings believes the fact that Westfield State supports the REU program, which in turn exposes math students to more than what they would have learned in just the classroom, is an essential part of the student experience. When applying to graduate school or joining the workforce, these opportunities are paramount.
Brian Jennings, Ph.D.
ASSISTANT PROFESSOR, MATHEMATICS DEPARTMENT
Since September 2011, Brian Jennings, Ph.D., has been a member of the faculty of the Westfield State University Department of Mathematics.
Along with three of his colleagues in the Math Department, Jennings helped develop a program at Westfield State called the Research Experience for Undergraduates, which supports undergraduate mathematics students conducting math research during a year-long program.
In addition, Jennings teaches math courses, advises math majors and serves on a number of committees within his department and university-wide. Among the math courses he teaches are ones designed for liberal arts, elementary education and upper-level courses for math majors.
He prefers a style of teaching that is guided discovery learning/inquiry-based learning. His areas of research include mathematical physics, foundations of quantum theory and the relation between classical and quantum physics.
The inaugural Research Experience for Undergraduates program for math students at Westfield State University involved Rachael Fountain ’15, Jacob Goodreau ’16, Zachery Lancto ’15 and Jessica Young ’15.
As part of that program, each of them spent a year engaging in mathematics classes and conducting research that they each have presented at a highly competitive conference of the largest gathering of scholars and students in the world, the Joint Mathematics Meeting, in January 2015.
For Fountain, 21, she was initially drawn to Westfield State because of its strong teaching program and smaller student population, which has afforded her individual support and attention from her professors. After graduation, she plans to go into teaching but first needs to earn a master’s degree
in mathematics and education. Her ultimate goal is to teach math at the secondary level at a school in Western Massachusetts.
Young, also 21, decided on Westfield State after hearing about the positive experiences from students she knew who had attended previously and for its affordability. She is currently waiting to hear on admission to graduate schools where she wants to earn her doctoral degree in applied statistics.