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Archive for December, 2013

Jazz – Why We Need Diversity in Mathematics

December 20th, 2013 by Alice Fisher

I recently sat down with Professor Mark Tomforde, Associate Professor in the department of mathematics at the University of Houston, and talked with him about his outreach program called CHAMP that he began this past fall.  CHAMP is an acronym that stands for Cougars and Hope Academy Mathematics Program.  Hope Academy is a charter school in HISD located in the historic Third Ward and serves at-risk high school students.  Photo of participating students is below.

Dr. Tomforde was inspired by and modeled his program after the Worthing Rice Apprentice Program or WRAP, an outreach program for Worthing High School students directed by Rice Professor, Steve Cox.  After Tomforde found out about WRAP, he contacted Professor Cox and was invited to come to Rice to observe a WRAP session. Tomforde also received very valuable advice from the Rice professor including, “be very patient as the program develops” and “if you can affect just a couple students, that is a huge success.”

The goals of both programs include exposing young people, especially those from underrepresented groups, to interesting topics in mathematics and sciences as well as encouraging them to attend college and perhaps major in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) field.  During one of the WRAP sessions this past fall, the students visited the computer lab of Rice Professor James McLurkin.  A photo of the visit is below:

Rice University Professor Richard Tapia, RUSMP friend and champion of underrepresented groups in mathematics and the sciences, has argued that underrepresentation does not endanger the health of the discipline, that the health of mathematics is fine.  However, he does strongly believe that having such a large part of the US population not engaged in the practice of the mathematical sciences does endanger the health of the nation.

I asked Dr. Tomforde if he thought that having a more diverse group of mathematicians would benefit the field of mathematics.  Here is his response:

He also shared with me the most recent newsletter from the Math Alliance, an organization whose goal is to make sure that every underrepresented or underserved American student with the talent and the ambition has the opportunity to earn a doctoral degree in a mathematical science.  The first paragraph of the newsletter summarized one of the talks given at the 2013 Field of Dreams Conference hosted by the Math Alliance.  The speaker, Kathryn Chaloner explained that:

“the philosophical differences in how we interpret probability and gave a historical and mathematical perspective on Bayesian Statistics. Her talk did this by focusing on 3 key mathematicians, Thomas Bayes, Leonard Jimmie Savage, and David Harold Blackwell. Each of these 3 mathematicians made important original contributions that could be described as “out of the box” thinking, going against the cultural norms of mathematics at the time. Each of these 3 mathematicians were also excluded in some way from the educational system in which they lived: one because of his religion, one because of his disability and one because of his race.”  

Dr. Chaloner’s slides are available here.

Thus, Tomforde believes that those from underrepresented groups can offer insights into mathematics that would otherwise be missed much like jazz in music.

In addition, he discussed what he learned from and about his students.

Thanks to Professor Tomforde for sharing his thoughts with RUSMP!

Learn more about WRAP at http://www.caam.rice.edu/~cox/wrap/, and  read more about the CHAMP program at http://math.uh.edu/champ/.