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Led by co-organizers Lou Rossi and David Edwards (front row from right), 23 students from 16 states and 19 higher education institutions around the country participated in the 16th annual Graduate Student Mathematical Modeling Camp followed by the 37th annual workshop on Mathematical Problems in Industry.

UD welcomes nationwide graduate math students

Photo by Evan Krape

Problem-solving camp and workshop provides career preparation

A research study that considered the ways popular cultural images of math and mathematicians influence the relationship that young people form with the subject found that students believe mathematicians lack social skills and have no personal lives outside of math. Though the report, “Mathematical Images and Identities: Education, Entertainment, Social Justice,” was based on a survey of students in the United Kingdom, George Mason University graduate student Wyatt Rush admits that similar perceptions exist on this side of the Atlantic Ocean and were on his mind when he headed to the University of Delaware to participate in the 16th annual Graduate Student Mathematical Modeling Camp (GSMMC) followed by the 37th annual workshop on Mathematical Problems in Industry (MPI).

“When you attend something like this, don’t fall into the stereotype that all mathematicians are silent and don’t want to talk or socialize; it’s an old stereotype,” said Rush. “I am a mathematician, and I was worried about that, but everyone was super nice. I made a lot of friends, had a lot of great conversations and enjoyed just hanging out with everyone.”

Competitive selection process

Rush had one of the shorter trips to the two-week experience that welcomed 23 students from 16 states and 19 higher education institutions around the country — including schools as far away as Oregon State University and San Diego State University — chosen via a competitive selection process based on transcripts, mathematical experience and recommendation letters. Locally, Delaware State University sent one student, and UD was represented by two students, Andrea Weaver and Lindsey Jacobs, who Rush said were very welcoming and helpful hosts.

“The overall experience was great,” said Jacobs. “The other students were all very nice, so I felt very comfortable right from the start.”

Innovative graduate experience

After learning about mathematical modeling with hypothetical problems at the in-person Graduate Student Mathematical Modeling Camp (and while following the University of Delaware’s social distancing protocols), the students remained at UD to put the lessons to work over the next week on real-world, research-level problems in the much larger, virtual Mathematical Problems in Industry workshop. Conducted by the University of Vermont, MPI annually attracts leading applied mathematicians and scientists from universities, industry and national laboratories.

According to GSMMC co-organizer David A. Edwards, UD professor of mathematical sciences and a regular MPI participant for over 25 years, the camp experience equips students with the confidence to actively participate on MPI teams with faculty and postdocs. In return, MPI benefits by having a cadre of well-trained, energetic students to collaborate with the other academic participants.

“Though there are other summer student training camps like GSMMC and other industrial study groups like MPI, GSMMC-MPI is the only program that ties the two together,” said Edwards. “MPI is the longest running industrial study group in the United States, having started in the mid-80s. In the mid-2000s, the organizers realized that graduate students would benefit from having some mathematical modeling training before launching into the real-world, research-level problems at MPI, and so the camp was born.”

Edwards’ fellow co-organizer, Lou Rossi, professor of mathematical sciences and dean of UD’s Graduate College, said UD has a trailblazing history of innovative graduate experiences like GSMMC-MPI. These initiatives include UD being an early adopter of 4+1 programs that allow advanced undergraduates to participate in articulated graduate experiences and having a nationally ranked Online MBA program that adopted its web-based delivery mode to make the program available to a much wider audience. Like Edwards, Rossi has a lengthy history with GSMMC-MPI and he credited it with being well ahead of its time and preparing participants for in-demand employment opportunities.

“With the number of math Ph.D.s finding jobs in academia monotonically decreasing for decades, there is a recognized need for us to do more to prepare these highly educated, highly skilled graduate students to thrive outside of academia,” said Rossi. “Private industry and government agencies have real mathematical needs that can be met by graduate students and faculty who can cross disciplinary lines and communicate effectively in teams. This program has long been a successful and cost-effective model for providing needed career preparation as well as a fertile recruiting ground for the sponsors.”

Communication crucial for problem-solving

The GSMMC-MPI participants quickly found out that math proficiency was only part of the problem-solving equation that could not be completed without social skills.

“My biggest takeaway is that communication is key when working on a team,” said Jacobs. “It’s also important to not be shy and speak up if you do not understand something and to help others struggling if you can.”

Along with connecting with mathematicians, the students were reminded of the importance of interacting with subject matter experts from the disciplines that mathematical modeling is being applied to. Working virtually with group members in other locations and time zones during MPI, they also had to compose daily write-ups to keep everyone on the same page.

“There was a lot of writing and communications outside of just math,” said Rush, who described his overall experience as a lot of intense problem-solving. “Most problems in industry are not just strictly math for the sake of doing math. I had to learn about tree biology the first week and COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] the second week, so there was a lot of interdisciplinary learning.”

Multi-institution participation aids brainstorming

Having spent so much time at home since March 2020, like much of the rest of the world, the participants relished the opportunity to work with other students in person and do some socializing. Rush said he made some really good friends he intends to stay in contact with, and he benefited from collaborating with students from other colleges who bring different perspectives because every department runs differently and has its own ethos, processes and hierarchies.

“It’s really nice to be able to meet somebody who says ‘as far as this problem goes, I’ve actually seen something similar and we did this, this and this,’ ’’ said Rush. “Just getting a broad idea of how people take different approaches to the same topic is really helpful.”

Jacobs was happy to return to UD, engage with the visitors and help them navigate the campus and surrounding area.

“It was so nice to work with people from schools all around the country,” said Jacobs. “It was interesting to learn what everybody’s research interests are and what their respective math departments are like. It was beneficial to work with students from other colleges because everyone had a different math background and coursework, so it really helped in brainstorming ideas and figuring out how to solve the problems.”

Recommended experience

Despite growing up in nearby Northern Virginia, Rush had not previously been to the First State and was impressed by the UD campus and its historical architecture. He encourages other students to jump at the chance to take part in GSMMC-MPI or a similar activity, wherever it is held.

“Anyone who has the opportunity should definitely try to do a camp or conference like this,” said Rush. “Go meet people, learn about the industry, learn what is being talked about and researched, and just go learn and have a good time.”

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