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University of Illinois Department of Mathematics wins AMS Award

American Mathematical Society

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IMAGE: The department is the 2017 recipient of the American Mathematical Society's Award for an Exemplary Program or Achievement in a Mathematics Department. view more

Credit: Department of Mathematics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The Department of Mathematics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is the 2017 recipient of the American Mathematical Society Award for an Exemplary Program or Achievement in a Mathematics Department, the AMS announced today.

Michael Dorff of Brigham Young University, who served as chair of the award selection committee, said: "The mathematics department at the University of Illinois has done a remarkable job in assisting more students to succeed in mathematics through various programs at both the undergraduate and graduate level and improving the representation of women and underrepresented minorities. These activities range from creating an internship program for graduate students to innovative projects emphasizing active learning for undergraduate students such as the Illinois Geometry Lab that provides a community for undergraduate research. At the same time, the department has made conscious and consistent efforts to increase the representation of women and minorities. Many mathematics departments could benefit from following the Illinois approach and implementing some of its programs."

The Illinois math department has long occupied a central position on the worldwide mathematical scene as a successful and prestigious department. Its high research profile attracts students and researchers internationally, and its PhD production annually accounts for 1-2% of all mathematics doctorates in the United States. Today, by drawing on the creativity and expertise of its faculty, the Illinois math department has moved up from being a successful department to a truly outstanding one.

A major emphasis in the department is its devotion to all of its students. And there are many of them: The department has one of the largest teaching loads on campus, with 26,000 student-courses each year. The commitment to students shows in the department's collaboration, over the past decade, with the College of Engineering, to rework calculus courses to better serve engineering majors. Today these courses feature applications of calculus to real-life science and engineering problems as well as "active learning" discussion sections that get students discussing and working on problems in teams.

For 25 years, the department has had a Merit Scholars program, which recruits students who have strong academic records and come from traditionally underserved populations, including members of minority groups as well as first-generation college students. Merit students attend regular lectures, but instead of traditional one-hour discussion sections, they participate in two-hour active-learning "workshops" in which they collaborate on problem sets.

The success of the engineering calculus courses, as well as that of the Merit Scholars, helped to "infect" the entire math department with the active-learning model. The department is now implementing active learning on a large scale, reaching more than 8,000 students each year across its calculus and linear algebra courses.

The department has a huge number of majors, 1200 in all, reflecting the high value today's students place on intensive mathematical study, whether they seek careers after graduation or graduate work in a STEM field. Broadening the students' horizons and giving them opportunities for intensive teamwork is a goal of the department's Illinois Geometry Lab (IGL). Through the IGL, students work under the guidance of faculty on semester-long projects with a computational flavor. Topics have ranged from modeling taxi routes in New York City, to studying properties of knots with a large number of crossings, to solving problems related to lithium-ion battery design, to investigating randomness in number theory. IGL students become enthusiastic evangelists for mathematics, participating in outreach activities that raise awareness of mathematics among school students and the general public.

Another way the department has responded to evolving student interests is by expanding its Actuarial Science Program. This program now enrolls almost 400 undergraduate majors and is growing at the graduate level to address increasing demand in risk management.

The department's mathematics graduate program, which awards both master's and PhD degrees, is thriving. In contrast to the "sink or swim" attitude that traditionally prevailed in many graduate programs in mathematics, the Illinois department works hard to ensure that all of its students succeed. Highly streamlined, the PhD program is geared toward getting students into research and matched up with a thesis advisor. A timetable specifies milestones the students must reach on their path to the degree, and faculty provide careful mentoring to be sure students reach the milestones on time. Graduate students comment on the friendly, welcoming atmosphere in the department and the sense of collaboration, rather than competition, that prevails.

A major innovation in the department is PI4 (Program for Interdisciplinary and Industrial Internships at Illinois) at https://pi4.math.illinois.edu/, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and which provides training and internships for graduate students. The program includes a "Summer Computational Boot Camp" in which students pick up programming skills. They are then placed in internships in companies or laboratories or in other departments on the Illinois campus where mathematical thinking can make a contribution to research. The number of summer internships has grown from six in 2013 to a total of thirty-one in 2016.

The department has made conscious and consistent efforts to increase the representation of women and minorities in its graduate program. The percentage of women in the PhD program has increased from 28 percent ten years ago to 38 percent today (62 of the 160 PhD students are women), and the percentage of U.S. underrepresented minority students has risen from 4 percent to 22 percent of all US students in the last six years. The department has an active chapter of the Association for Women in Mathematics, which organizes outreach, social, and academic activities.

Excelling in scholarship, education, and service, the Department of Mathematics at the University of Illinois has become an exemplar and an inspiration for the entire mathematical sciences community and is a deserving recipient of this AMS award.

The official announcement of this award, including the selection committee's citation, is available from the AMS Public Awareness Office and will appear in the May 2017 issue of the Notices of the AMS. No subscription is necessary.

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Find out more about this and other AMS awards at http://www.ams.org/profession/prizes-awards/prizes.

Founded in 1888 to further mathematical research and scholarship, today the American Mathematical Society 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

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