Mathematics and Statistics
T-Y Tam, Department Chairman

REU program provides an Authentic Experience in Mathematics

REU 1“Square root,” “mathematical analysis,” “axiomatic proof ”: these words were tossed around like peanuts in a casual conversation between participants during the Research Experiences for Undergraduates Program in Algebra and Discrete Mathematics. The eight-week program takes place during the summer and is designed for undergraduate students pursuing a bachelor’s or associate degree in mathematics. Participants are involved in an intensive introduction to a selection of open problems and problem areas, followed by problem solving, presentations, daily seminars, and problem sessions. At the end of the workshop, each group prepares a written summary and oral presentation about workshop endeavors.

When asked what he gained most from the program, Loren Anderson, a junior at North Dakota State University, said: “We were given a variety of constructive talks on various topics in mathematics; we were getting one-to-one personal assistance on open-ended problems; we were given a chance to work constructively as a team on long-term problems; and we were given a chance to learn computer algorithms to help solve a problem that requires a lot of computation and pattern recognition.”

In all, nine students participated in the 2013 program, representing universities across the nation, including: Auburn University, North Dakota State University, University of Dayton, Wayland Baptist University, Gettysburg College, Emory University, and Duke University.

“We started trying to get REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) funding back in 1996 because we thought that we would be good at it,” explained mathematics professor and co-director of the program, Peter Johnson. “We hope that the program we developed provides an authentic research experience in mathematics so that they might better decide whether to pursue studies in higher mathematics.”

REU 2Overtoun Jenda, professor of mathematics and associate provost for diversity and multicultural affairs, co-directs the competitive program with Johnson. As part of the effort to provide an authentic research institute experience, faculty, graduate students, and distinguished visitors give talks to the participants throughout the program.

“The participants also attend PhD and master’s defenses and preliminary orals; and while the participants usually work with each other or with the co-directors, they sometimes wind up working with other faculty or with graduate students. All of this adds up to scholarly energy being expended, which is a good thing,” said Johnson. “During the program, a research institute atmosphere certainly pervades the Department of Mathematics and Statistics.”

Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the program boasts alumni who are recipients of National Science Foundation Fellowships and Goldwater Scholarships. Typically, Johnson and Jenda select eight participants from about 90 applications which come from students all over the nation.

“This year, nine students participated, as one was an informal participant, meaning she was not supported by the grant, but voluntarily worked in the program,” explained Johnson. “We draw from applicants nationwide because the NSF is not granting these funds for the good of Auburn University, but rather to promote intellectual tone and productivity in mathematics and the sciences nationwide. However, there is no doubt that Auburn benefits from being the site of one of these programs, but the benefits are indirect and are maximized by maintaining an elevated quality of program. Having talented outsiders come to Auburn for an REU program elevates the general level of activity and expectation at Auburn.”