College of LAS « Illinois

Mathematics

The New Math

Adding "VIGRE" to the teaching of math.

This is not your parents' math class. Nobody is lecturing to a class full of students or assigning readings and homework problems to grade the next day. Instead, an innovative math-education initiative has given scores of U of I mathematics students a chance to team up with each other and with senior mathematicians to tackle thorny math problems no one has ever solved.

In the 1990s, the National Science Foundation realized that more scientific and technical jobs than ever require advanced mathematical skills, and fewer American students were entering the field. So they began funding a program called Grants for the Vertical Integration of Research and Education (VIGRE) to lure more students to study mathematics. In 2000, the LAS Department of Mathematics, which teaches 10,000 undergraduates and 200 graduate students each year, received a five-year, $3.8 million dollar VIGRE grant.

The money—one of the largest mathematics grants given by NSF for the support of mathematics—funds research and education programs that allow undergraduates, graduate students,and postdocs to work closely with senior mathematicians. Two programs enable small groups of undergraduates or beginning graduate students to team up with faculty and try a new approach to an unsolved mathematical problem. In seminars called "Research Among Peers," known as RAPs, more advanced graduate students, postdoctoral students, and faculty work jointly on mathematical ideas that interest them. The teamwork has paid off with publications in scholarly journals, says Joe Rosenblatt, chair of the mathematics department and principle investigator on the VIGRE grant.

In the VIGRE-funded programs, "often the teachers become the student and the student becomes the teacher." Rosenblatt says." That's what's so exciting."

Summer 2004