From the Director
High School Math
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
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.