CSU integrates math education across majors

Add up the ways math affects your life and you will end up with some complex equations and a long list. Mathematics is an old branch of science derived from observation.

“Some of the first math we did was trying to explain the universe in a physical sort of way,” said Christie Burris, president of Math Club.

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Math was originally tied to physics, but Dr. Patrick Shipman, assistant professor in CSU’s mathematics department, said that math is very interdisciplinary and CSU’s mathematics department is also involved in neuroscience, engineering and biology.

Burris is part of FEScUE, or Flexible and Extendable Scientific Undergraduate Experience, a program that exposes undergraduates to applied math research and is funded by the National Science Foundation for two years, giving them grounding in how math applies to other subjects.

“I’m very proud of our department, because I doubt there’s many other departments on campus that are connecting all the time with so many other fields,” Shipman said.

Burris adds that math can also be used by sociologists to understand refugee and humanitarian problems caused by war.

Math may get a bad rap because it is abstract, and can be self-contained. Shipman explains that while there are many professors in the CSU mathematics department who work with other departments, there are also many who work only on “pure” mathematics. But Burris explains this is still beneficial to other fields.

“A lot of times mathematicians are intrigued by a certain problem that no one knows about, and then they find the math and someone else discovers what it applies to,” Burris said. “A lot of pure math eventually became something really applicable.”

Dr. Jennifer Mueller, professor and director of graduate studies for the CSU mathematics department, agrees with Shipman about the benefits of CSU’s interdisciplinary math department. She explains that mathematicians need a wide range of skills in order to be relevant.

“You need the spread to be able to focus in all kinds of different areas because the fact is, especially applied mathematicians never know what (skills) they’re going to need to draw on to solve a problem — the solution can come from an unexpected place,” Mueller said.

Mueller works on inverse problems, which aim to find the cause of an observed effect using mathematical modeling. Her research develops medical imaging techniques that are less invasive and safer than current practices. Inverse problems can also be applied to other aspects, like tracing river contaminants to a source. She said a person with a degree in inverse problems –or math in general– has a lot of options when looking for a career.

“A math degree is actually very marketable,” Mueller said.

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The CSU math program does a lot of outreach. They send students to K-12 schools and host a public lecture series.

“Mathematicians want to bring math to everybody. Bringing up the general math literacy is an important thing,” Mueller said.

Mueller said that while the usual progression for students is to take calculus before other math classes, students who are not good at calculus can still be successful in the field.

“Math isn’t as linear as it seems. Everyone starts in calculus and that’s the class that where people decide if they’re ‘good’ at math. But algebra, for example, is different from calculus — it’s a different way of thinking,” Mueller said.

Shipman says that students might not think of math as a degree because it seems to stand alone, but in reality it applies to some other field. He says math’s variability is why he went into the subject in the beginning.

“I found… I don’t have to decide. I can just do math and I get to work with so many people,” Shipman said.

Collegian Science Beat Reporter Remi Boudreau can be reached at news@collegian.com.