Resources for Undergraduate Research in Mathematics
By Sarah Adams and Darren Narayan
February 20, 2008
“Undergraduate research is hot!” exclaims MAA President Joseph Gallian. Colleges and universities across the nation are placing an increasing emphasis on engaging undergraduate students in research. However, despite this increase in interest, it still can be difficult to secure resources to get an undergraduate research program started at your institution. The purpose of this column is to share successful models for engaging undergraduates in mathematical research, including through summer and academic-year experiences. Topics will include successful strategies for obtaining internal and external resources, for recruiting and retaining enthusiastic faculty mentors, and for finding appropriate problems for undergraduate research projects. Our hope is that with your contributions (see below for information about submitting articles), this column will become a useful resource that will help to promote and support undergraduate research nationwide.
The principal source of funding for undergraduate research in mathematics comes from the National Science Foundation through their Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Program, and the National Security Agency also provides funding for similar programs. These grants support summer undergraduate research sites all over the nation at Ph.D. granting universities, comprehensive universities, and liberal arts colleges. The number of students affected by these grants is in the thousands, with expenditures into the tens of millions. However these grants are very competitive, which leads to questions involving obtaining “start-up funds” either in the form of smaller external grants or from your own institution. In our first article this month (linked below), Michael Dorff describes an interesting opportunity that addresses this need for start-up funds. The deadline for the described program is March 15, 2008.
Understanding the differences between undergraduate research in mathematics and in other areas is critical since internal funds are often part of a general pool to be split among all disciplines. The challenges faced by mathematics faculty differ from those faced by their counterparts in other areas of the sciences. For example, it can be more difficult to explain the importance of certain theoretical mathematical research compared to the importance of, say, a biology research project that may lead to a critically-needed vaccine. It can also be more difficult to recruit students into research in mathematics, as research in other laboratory sciences can be more amenable to early undergraduate involvement. On the other hand, undergraduate research in mathematics has certain advantages. For example, laboratory science projects often are affected by limited resources such as modern laboratories, costly materials, and safety concerns, while in most mathematical research projects these restrictions are lifted, opening the floodgates for unlimited creativity. In our second article this month (linked below), members of the MAA CUPM Subcommittee on Research by Undergraduates provide some tips on communicating certain differences between undergraduate research in mathematics and in other disciplines, as well as providing a more general discussion of the costs and benefits of providing undergraduate research experiences for students in mathematics.
While funding is a primary concern, financial support is only one element needed to start and maintain a successful program of undergraduate research. A strong program also needs energetic faculty members, interested students, appropriate facilities, and a source of problems appropriate for student research. Different models will be successful at different institutions, and such models might range from academic-year programs that have little or no funding to summer programs with full external funding. We invite you to submit articles that address any of these or other related issues! Again, our hope is that through your contributions, this column will become a useful resource for faculty members hoping to start and maintain research opportunities for students at their institutions.
To submit an article (roughly 2-4 pages in length), please email a pdf to both editors Sarah Adams (sarah.adams AT olin.edu) and Darren Narayan (dansma AT rit.edu).
In our first issue, we highlight two important resources for getting undergraduate research in mathematics started at your institution.
Thank you for reading our inaugural issue of this MAA Online column, and please email us with any comments or suggestions.
The Editors, Sarah Spence Adams and Darren Narayan
Sarah Spence Adams is an Associate Professor of Mathematics at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering.
Darren Narayan is an Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Resesarch in Mathematics at the Rochester Insitute of Technology.