There's nothing a math professor likes more than a pie-in-the-sky chalk talk with bright graduate students about matrix theory or the Riemann Hypothesis.
But mathematicians at the University of Rochester found out the hard way that soaring into the intellectual ether is no good for job security if undergraduate math students are left languishing.
Just six years ago, Naomi Jochnowitz, a Rochester math professor, watched in horror as the financially strapped school unveiled plans to chop its entire graduate math program. It quickly became a national cause célèbre, drawing protests from at least 12 Nobel laureates. If math was expendable, what next? English?
Today, Rochester's math bust has turned to boom. The graduate program was saved. And, strange as it may sound, math is hip on the western New York campus, where more than 5 percent of undergrads major in it.
That's about triple the national average, though, which means most math departments are still scrambling to attract students. Indeed, Rochester's success highlights the fact that there aren't nearly enough turnaround stories like it.
A study released last month by the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences (CBMS) shows that bachelor's degrees granted in mathematics fell 19 percent between 1990 and 2000, even though overall undergraduate enrollment rose 9 percent. The CBMS has been collecting such data every five years for decades.
Math mavens are not exactly panicking, but there is a growing sense of urgency about declines in math literacy undercutting the nation's technology-based economy.
In response, efforts to turn the tide in undergraduate math have focused on problems ranging from poor preparation of students in high school to math's reputation as nerdy or too demanding.
Simply not driving students away has been a key focus of "calculus reform," the set of fixes applied to make the traditional gateway college math course more accessible. That approach, widely adopted over the past decade, focuses more on math concepts than on number crunching.
Some say the number of math majors would have been far lower without calculus reform. But it has not been a silver bullet.
"The new survey shows there is still cause for concern, even though the picture is not unrelieved gloom," says Harriet Pollatsek, a math professor at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., who chairs the undergraduate math committee at the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). The MAA plans to unveil an overhaul of its model college math curriculum early next year.
"It's still the case," Ms. Pollatsek says, "that employers don't find college graduates who are sufficiently well educated in math."
Still, some say, the decline in "pure math" degrees may be a misleading indicator of interest in college math, since other options like computer science have siphoned off many students who might otherwise have pursued math full time.
The past five years have seen "a rebound" in math enrollments, says David Lutzer, co-author of the new study and a math professor at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. But the numbers are only back up to where they were in 1990.
He points to one hopeful sign, though: higher enrollments in Calculus I, II, and III courses an indicator that the number of math degrees might increase in coming years. Another bright spot is a growing number of math-education degrees and statistics course enrollments a response to higher demand for math teachers and more math literacy in many disciplines.
"The world has become so quantified that students who once would have been mathematics majors can now use their talents and interests in mathematics while majoring in almost any other field," says Ann Watkins, president of the MAA and a math professor at California State University, Northridge. Because of that, she's not alarmed that the number of math majors dropped during the past decade.
It's not just that math is stagnating as an undergraduate field, says Pollatsek; the number of US citizens who go on to do graduate work in the field is at best flat after a period of decline. Only about half of people who earn advanced math degrees in the United States are Americans. "We're not reproducing the professoriate," she says.
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.
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."
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.
"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.' "