Public Release: 

Mathematics department at Iowa State receives AMS national award

American Mathematical Society

The Department of Mathematics at Iowa State University is the 2015 recipient of the American Mathematical Society's Award for an Exemplary Program or Achievement in a Mathematics Department.

Aloysius Helminck of North Carolina State University, who served as chair of the award selection committee, said, "The department of mathematics at Iowa State University has managed to do it all. The department delivers outstanding instruction in its courses, provides a supportive community for its math majors, mentors well its graduate students, and runs a highly successful Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. What is more, they have made recruiting and nurturing of women and minority graduate students a departmental priority. The department is highly deserving of this prestigious award."

The Iowa State mathematics department has always been a congenial place with a faculty active in research and dedicated to its students. But in the 2000s, it began to move in some new directions that enhanced its sense of purpose. With funding from the National Science Foundation, it started its REU program, which attracts top mathematics majors---many of them women or members of underrepresented minorities---from around the nation. It also became a founding member of the Iowa Alliance for the Production of African American Ph.D.s in the Mathematical Sciences. The Iowa Alliance has now expanded into the National Alliance for Doctoral Study in the Mathematical Sciences, known usually as the Math Alliance, which sponsors the annual Field of Dreams Conference and collaborates with other national programs that aim to increase diversity in the mathematical sciences.

In 2008, the Iowa State mathematics department identified two key priorities. The first was undergraduate teaching. The department scrutinized all of its undergraduate courses, revamping the content and reconsidering delivery methods. Some beginning courses that, in order to save money, had been offered over the web, were switched back to a more-traditional format emphasizing person-to-person contact. This resulted in an immediate rise in retention. The department also worked to optimize the matching of instructors to courses and instituted an improved placement examination. To provide consistent focus on these issues, in 2009 the department founded the Center for Excellence in Undergraduate Mathematics Education.

These positive efforts drew strong support from the university administration, which gave the department additional funds to carry out the improvements. The department hired several new young mathematicians, who have done great things for the undergraduate program.

With 10,500 students enrolling in mathematics courses in the fall of 2014, the department's improvements in undergraduate teaching have had a significant impact. What is more, between 2008 and 2014, the number of math majors soared from 130 to 300.

The second priority the department identified was increasing diversity. State demographics offer no advantage here; Iowa is 90 percent white. But the department used the connections made through the Math Alliance to reach out to minority-serving schools to recruit students for its REU. Enthusiasm for the REU led many of them to apply for graduate school in mathematics at Iowa State. Department faculty also visited minority-serving institutions to recruit for the graduate program and appointed a faculty member as diversity director to sustain focus on these efforts.

At the same time, improvements were made in how the graduate program supports and mentors all of its students. The department now has a very good infrastructure that guides students into research early in their graduate careers. There are also several mentoring groups that help students adjust to the demands of graduate school. For example, there is a group bringing together women students and women faculty, and another, the Mathematicians of Color Alliance, focusing on students from underrepresented minorities. Graduate students help out in the REU, which draws them into the excitement of the research happening in that program and also gives them experience in mentoring younger students.

Word has gotten around, and the Iowa State mathematics department is now seen as a very good place to get a PhD in mathematics. Students know that when they are accepted, the department will do everything it can to ensure that they succeed in finishing the PhD and that they go on to good careers. While the positive, supportive atmosphere has benefited all graduate students, it has had a disproportionately large effect on women students and those from underrepresented minorities.

The Iowa State mathematics department has achieved a great deal not through revolutionary changes, not by implementing a cure-all program, and not by overloading a single faculty member who "does it all." Rather, it has relied on tried and true ideas, sound educational principles, and dedicated teamwork.

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Find out more about this award at http://www.ams.org/profession/prizes-awards/ams-awards/department-award.

Founded in 1888 to further mathematical research and scholarship, today the American Mathematical Society of international membership fulfills its mission through programs and services that promote mathematical research and its uses, strengthen mathematical education, and foster awareness and appreciation of mathematics and its connections to other disciplines and to everyday life.

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