Friday, August 15, 2014

MAA Books Beat: Teaching Isn't the Only Job for Math Majors

Written by Steve Kennedy, MAA Books Beat is a column written for MAA FOCUSTeaching Isn't the Only Job for Math Majors appears in the August/September issue.

Teaching Isn’t the Only Job for Math Majors

“What would I do with a math degree? I don’t want to teach.” That anyone would ask this question has flummoxed me for years. When I was younger I was tempted (and sometimes succumbed to the temptation) to explain that one does not study mathematics for its possible future income potential. One studies mathematics because it is mankind’s only portal to absolute truth. Science deals in, as its best, approximations to truth; the humanities in speculation; the arts obscure as much as they reveal. Mathematics, using just the power of your mid, reveals eternal, and external to us, absolute truth.

I’m older now, and hopefully wiser, and not only do I see the value in what science, humanities, and the arts illuminate, but also, I see the legitimacy of the question itself. I too can now talk about the many interesting careers my former students have taken up: Nutty Steph, who started a granola company; Kate, who became a dog-musher leading winter tours of northern Minnesota; Liz, who was Stephen Wolfram’s personal assistant. Unfortunately, as the examples illustrate, I tend to remember the unusual and offbeat options.

Details about “Best Job”

CareerCast recently listed “mathematician” as the Best Job of 2014 (university professor, statistician, and actuary round out the top four). This made a nice blurb in our department newsletter, but they didn’t provide an awful lot of detail about what kind of jobs these folks are looking at. Fortunately, we have Andy Sterrett. Andy has been tracking down mathematics graduates with interesting careers and compiling their stories in 101 Careers in Mathematics for more than a decade. The third edition is just out. I’ll give some highlights to share with your students wondering what to do with a math degree.

Alysia Appell has degrees from Grand Valley State University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She is in charge of the pilot-staffing model for Northwest/Delta Airlines; that means she needs to forecast the airline’s future needs to hire pilots and plan how to cover all flights given predicted vacations and illnesses of current flight staff.

Joel Schneider has degrees from Franklin and Marshall, Washington State, and the University of Oregon. He was the content director for Square One TV, a children’s TV show that aired in the 1990s. Square One has echoes of Sesame Street but was focused on mathematics. My personal favorite bit was “Mathnet,” a Dragnet parody that featured a detective named Monday who was interested in just the facts as she solved mathematical mysteries. Schneider is still in TV, now producing a mathematical game show called Risky Numbers.

Kay Strain King has degrees from Vanderbilt, Makerere (Uganda), and Texas A&M universities. She is a senior environmental mathematician for Theta Engineering. She does mathematical consulting on environmental problems. In her article in 101 Careers, she describes a project to model gas release from a bermed storage tank under various weather conditions.

I bought a copy of 101 Careers to put in our department’s student reading nook. I’m thinking I should buy another copy for my desk. If you teach and advise undergraduates and sometimes find yourself confronting the question with which I opened this column, you should buy one as well.

(By the way, we have already started collecting material for the next edition of 101 Careers. If you are, or know, someone with an interesting mathematical career, please contact Deanna Haunsperger at

Monday, August 4, 2014

MAA Pavilion Events 2014 (#MAAthFest)

In Portland, OR for MAA MathFest 2014 this week? Stop by the MAA Pavilion in the exhibit hall and check out our events and book deals:

Sweet Treats
Come by the MAA Pavilion on Thursday, August 7 at 2:30 pm and enjoy a sweet treat or two while browsing our books.

3 Books, 3 Days
Returning to MAA MathFest 2014, follow us on twitter daily at the times below and be the first to find out our special sale titles. Pick up your copy at the MAA Pavilion before they're gone!

August 7 @ 3:14 pm: Special Sale Title for $4
August 8 @ 2:30 pm: Special Sale Title for $5
August 9 @ 10:00 am: Special Sale Title for $6

Euler Tercentenary Collection
Special Offer: Our special collector's edition of the Euler Tercentenary Collection five volumes is on sale for only $40!

Publications Survey
Let us know how we are doing. Fill out the survey and return it to the MAA Pavilion by 5:00 pm on Friday, August 8, for a chance to win an MAA book. The winner will be notified and will be able to pick up their prize on Saturday.

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter (@MAAthFest) to stay up-to-date on all MAA MathFest events.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Teaching a Modern ODE Course

Attending MAA MathFest 2014 in Portland, Oregon? Stop by this informational session on teaching a modern ODE course.

Hilton and Executive Tower
22nd Floor
Mount St. Helens Suite
Friday, August 8

The differential equations course has changed radically over the last quarter century.  Easy access to powerful computation has enabled visualization to play a much larger role. The increasing mathematization of the life sciences has greatly expanded the kinds of models available for investigation. The advent of dynamical systems has made new kinds of questions imaginable and accessible. A modern ODE course has to take all this progress into account, though it is perhaps not clear exactly how to do so.  Anne NoonburgUniversity of Hartford and author of OrdinaryDifferential Equations from Calculus to Dynamical Systems―and Steve Kennedy―Carleton College and MAA Books Sr. Acquisitions Editorwill lead a discussion focused on how best to react to these changes in your ODE course. We will ask such questions as:
  • What is the appropriate role of modeling in the ODE course?
  • How do we balance the needs of physics, biology and engineering majors in the course?
  • What are good sources of deep and interesting models?
  • How much emphasis on numerical methods is appropriate?
  • Similarly how much dynamical systems theory and visualization?
  • What is the appropriate role of technology and what are good choices?
  • Is a Linear Algebra prerequisite necessary, or can the needed material fit in the ODE course?

Friday, July 11, 2014

William Satzer Reviews 101 Careers in Mathematics

William J. Satzer reviewed 101 Careers in Mathematics, 3rd Edition edited by Andy Sterrett as part of MAA Reviews. 

This is a wonderful book, potentially of great value to students and those who advise them. It has some frustrating gaps too, but in a way they also emphasize how useful it is and could be. In brief, this book presents a collection of profiles of people who have (or had) a career that involves some aspect of mathematics. Nearly all the people here have at least one degree in mathematics; the few exceptions have degrees in field like physics, operations research, or a statistics-related area. Short essays at the end of the book discuss the processes of interviewing and finding a job, and what it’s like to work in industry (or, more broadly, outside the academic community).

There are 25 new entries in this new edition that bring the total number of profiles to 146. The “101 Careers” of the title is best regarded as meaning “lots of careers”; even the first edition had more than 101 profiles. Counting careers is also a little funny: they don’t match up one-to-one with people. As many of the profiles demonstrate, many people have more than one career. Indeed it is increasingly uncommon for people to have a single career throughout their lives.

Read the full review here.

Monday, July 7, 2014

New: Mathematicians on Creativity

Mathematicians on Creativity

Peter Borwein, Peter Liljedahl, and Helen Zhai, Editors

This book aims to shine a light on some of the issues of mathematical creativity. It is neither a philosophical treatise nor the presentation of experimental results, but a compilation of reflections from top-caliber working mathematicians. In their own words, they discuss the art and practice of their work. This approach highlights creative components of the field, illustrates the dramatic variation by individual, and hopes to express the vibrancy of creative minds at work. Mathematicians on Creativity is meant for a general audience and is probably best read by browsing.