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College math on the rebound?

Many US campuses struggle to attract students to the subject, but the University of Rochester has found a formula for success

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These problems have not gone unnoticed. For at least a decade, the National Science Foundation has made math education a top priority, pumping millions into research of new approaches to teaching math. It has also provided scholarships for promising undergraduates to work individually with professors doing summer research. In 1998, 300 students participated, compared with about 900 this summer, Dr. Lutzer says.

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The research project had the desired effect on Barbara McClain, a third-year student at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. Not long ago she was considering an engineering major. But after several weeks this summer on an NSF-funded program researching matrix theory with a professor at the College of William & Mary, she's more determined than ever to zero in on a math degree – and possibly a graduate degree in the field, too.

"We were given a lot of freedom on where to go with the project," she says. "It was great, because ... as an undergraduate you're usually very limited. It was challenging, definitely. It was fantastic."

The turnaround at Rochester

Back when the University of Rochester's graduate mathematics program was caught in the crosshairs, the school planned to cut the math faculty from 21 to 10. Privately, administrators said that the math department had become disconnected from the math needs of undergraduates.

The unexpected firestorm from the Nobel laureates helped save the program, but the math department got the message.

The restructuring included new math courses catering to nonmajors, including statistics and computer-science students. One result: more double majors.

Walls were knocked down in the math building – literally – to create a new student math lounge with puzzles, games, and pillows. And food is key: Quantities of department-supplied pizza are a new staple at campus math talks sponsored by SUMS, the Society of Undergraduate Math Students club. Professors show up at parties to chat with undergrads.

It didn't hurt that the school also pushed to raise the quality of incoming students, so that the combined SAT scores went up an average of 100 points. But that modest bump in ability is likely just one of many factors that have combined to produce a sea change in student attitudes toward math.

In 1999, just 14 math majors graduated from the university. Three years later that number leaped to 44.

The number of students taking honors calculus – a leading indicator of interest in advanced math – has similarly grown from about 10 students to nearly 70. It's both amazing and a huge relief to many on the faculty.

"We came through this thing," Dr. Jochnowitz says, "but we were almost wiped off the face of the earth."

It hasn't been without a cost. Jochnowitz says the faculty is "worn out" with all the intensive teaching, and research has fallen behind. Yet it has also been strangely invigorating.

The pizza factor

"I don't know what's changed," says Liam Rafferty, a second-year math major. "I was kind of thinking about physics or computer science, but fell in love with math due to the high quality of the honors math program."

Small but telling moments speak volumes, says Douglas Ravenel, chair of the math department. One such moment came at last year's Christmas party. Several double majors in math and physics left to visit the physics party. In 20 minutes they returned. The math party was hot, physics was not.

"It was very satisfying," he says. "There's a buzz on campus about math now that it just didn't have five years ago."

Of course, it could be all due to the inscrutable P-factor, Jochnowitz says – the strange power of free pizza over the undergraduate. She relates, for instance, her strategy of conducting three-hour exams that students may extend for an entire day if they wish. Many willingly spend up to eight hours on her math tests without complaints, partly because of the pizza she provides.

Another element of the new image, though, is that most people on campus "think that math majors are really, really smart," Jochnowitz says. "When these students come on board we just tell them, 'Your secret is safe with us.' "

• E-mail claytonm@csps.com

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