Fall 2006

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From the Director

High School Math

Douglas N. Arnold
Doug Arnold,
IMA Director

Since the IMA is an interdisciplinary mathematical research institute, it is not surprising that large majority of the 1,300 or so participants at IMA programs each year are research mathematicians and scientists. About 85% of our participants hold a doctoral degree and most of the rest are doctoral students. But the IMA also has a role to play in reaching out to a broader audience: to interested members of the public, to politicians and other decision makers, and even to high school students, some of whom will become the research mathematicians and scientists of tomorrow. Here the goal is usually to illustrate some of the extraordinary variety of ways contemporary mathematical ideas are used to understand our world and shape our lives, and to convey a sense of the excitement that comes with being part of this great enterprise. These are things that are hard to discern in a usual high school curriculum, but which the IMA is an exceptional position to communicate.

The most visible IMA outreach activity is our public lecture series Math Matters, which four times each year brings distinguished mathematicians and scientists who are also superb expositors to address the general public. Thanks largely to a wonderful set of lectures and lecturers over the past years, the series has built up a devoted following, and the auditorium, which holds 360, is often standing room only. Gratifying, and somewhat surprising, to me has been the strong representation of high school students in the audience, which also includes professors, undergraduate and graduate students, alumni, and many others from the local community. The article in this Update on Margaret Wright's recent lecture How Hard Can It Be?, includes a picture of Margaret posing at the end of the lecture with a group of about 90 students from a single local high school. This group grows larger with each lecture, presumably thanks to the good word-of-mouth reporting from student attendees to their classmates. When I asked several of the students afterwards what they got from the lecture, a typical response was that they surely did not understand everything, but they understood some of it, learned some new things, felt excited, and wanted to learn more. This is pretty much how I feel after a good colloquium talk.

A more direct high school outreach event took place on November 3 in conjunction with the Blackwell-Tapia conference. This conference brought to the IMA some of the most distinguished African American and Latino mathematicians in the nation, including the current and past Blackwell-Tapia prize winners. We decided to use this opportunity to reach out to high school students, mostly belonging to the same minority groups, and developed a two hour program with two parts: Math is Cool! and Who Wants to Be a Mathematician?, which was presented to an audience of 100 students from Twin Cities public high schools. The first portion began with a talk by Richard Tapia on the application of optimization techniques to the problem of fair lane assignment for BMX bicycle racing. His talk—which included lots of video clips from races and a cameo appearance by his son and former BMX champ, Richard Jr.—captivated the students. For the conclusion of Math is Cool!, Josef Sifuentes, an artist as well a doctoral student in mathematics studying under Tapia, explained how he used finite element simulations of fluid flow around a car as a key element of a psychedelic music video Heavy Metal. When his talk was over I asked the students "How about it? Is math cool?" and the response was thunderous.

The second portion of the program, Who Wants to Be a Mathematician?, was a panel discussion in which Tapia and Sifuentes were joined by Rodrigo Bañuelos, William Massey, and Margaret Wright, in a discussion moderated by popular math author Shiela Tobias. Student questions drove the discussion: why did you decide to go into math?; what would you have done if you hadn't?; is it easy for you?; how do you spend your time?; how good do you have to do in high school to get a scholarship?; ... As you can see from the video posted on the program web page, the engagement and the interest of the students was palpable.

Student participants in the program received a free lunch and a few gifts: always a good idea for a successful outreach event. One of the gifts, a rattleback provided by Science Museum of Minnesota, fascinated the students and mathematicians alike. This is simply a block of plastic in the shape of a distorted semi-ellipsoid which exhibits unidirectional spin: it is easy to spin counterclockwise, but if you set it spinning clockwise, it slows its spin, begins to wobble, and ends up reversing the direction of spin. The first analysis of this counterintuitive behavior, which hinges on the non-coincidence of the principal axes of curvature and inertia, was published in 1986 by Cambridge mathematician and cosmologist Hermann Bondi. You can almost take the rattleback for a metaphor for typical high school students and the way they learn about math—push them in a direction they want to go and they move easily, but try to push against their inclinations and the going gets wobbly and even counterproductive. Observing the audience of Math is Cool!/Who Wants to Be a Mathematician? last month, I sure felt that we were spinning in the right direction.