It All Adds Up
Outstanding Math Department Stands on Its Own
One of the largest departments on campus is splitting in two. But unlike many denominational frays, this is a happy split. Like a mother letting go of her adult child, the mathematics department is letting its computer science branch go out on its own.
"It's a coming of age," professor Michael Stob explained. "We mathematicians are proud of the computer science program." Stob has served as chair of the mathematics and computer science department for the past three years.
Long-time mathematics professors Sanford Leestma and Larry Nyhoff developed the computer science program as technology advanced in the 1970's and 1980's. "It became clear we ought to have some computing classes on campus," Leestma said. The pair even wrote their own textbooks for early systems such as Fortran 77, a computer about the size of a washing machine. Early computer classes were non-credit and, in the early '70's, almost every mathematics professor helped to teach them. Now what began as a teletype connection to Detroit has become a mature program whose graduates are hired by companies such as IBM and Microsoft.
Because of its origins in the math department, the computer science curriculum has always been very mathematical. Recently, however, "the programs have diverged," Stob said. The computer science is becoming less theoretical and more applied, and the professors coming in now have their doctorate degrees in computer science. The two programs are ready to divide into distinct departments.
The departments will still maintain their ties. Four mathematics professors will have joint appointments to both departments, three will teach only computer science, and ten will teach only mathematics. Nonetheless, the separation will give the newly-named Mathematics and Statistics department more time to develop its unique strengths.
Professor Gerard Venema, who will be the interim department chair next year, believes that mathematics is an integral subject at a Christian liberal arts college. "We study the numerical and geometric aspects of creation," he said. "We come to understand creation's principles. It's one part of the bigger picture, and it's part of our mandate to understand the world."
Because mathematics is inextricably bound up in so many disciplines, students from a wide range of majors take math courses. More students than ever are required to learn mathematics for programs such as business, engineering, physics, chemistry and the social sciences.
Although there are fewer mathematics majors than there once were--about 20 graduate each year--the department has begun to encourage a collective identity among students whose first love is mathematics. Next year freshmen math majors (or those interested in the major) may enroll in a new seminar class in which they will "see what mathematics really is," according to Stob. They will work on problems, learn from the two faculty members in charge, listen to speakers and, perhaps most importantly, meet each other.
The mathematics colloquium is another way for students to share their enjoyment of the discipline. All mathematics majors meet once a week to discuss, to listen to speakers, to present to each other and to engage in problem-solving competitions.
During the ‘sputnik' era, the 1960's and ‘70's, it was "cool" to be a mathematics major, according to retired mathematics professor Paul Zwier. "Now people think you're kind of strange if you're a math major," he said. "But there is a secret admiration, too, I think."
Who wouldn't admire someone who recognizes the words ‘topology,' ‘homotopy,' and ‘epimorphisms' (even spell check isn't that good)? Or someone who can tackle a problem like this relatively simple one from the 1997 Lower Michigan Mathematics Competition: "On a square geoboard with 36 pegs, how many triangles with positive area can be formed?" (The answer is 6788).
The Lower Michigan competition, which Stob calls the "MIAA for mathematics-- except there are more schools," has been won by Calvin College students about half of the time during almost 20 years of participation. Students also team up to enter statewide and worldwide mathematics competitions. A Calvin team was ranked "outstanding" by the International Competition in Mathematical Modeling last year, as well as in 1985 and 1987. Professor Gary Talsma, who coordinates the teams, is proud of the students' successes: "I'd like to think it says something about the kind of mathematics education we provide at Calvin. I think it also says something about the quality of students we get at Calvin," he said.
Shawn Menninga, an electrical engineering and computer science major with a mathematics minor, has participated in several mathematics competitions. "Mathematics intrigues me because of the interrelationships," he said. "Everything somehow fits together."
Michael Bolt, an alumnus of the mathematics department, says he enjoys "the structure and the organization of the ideas" in mathematics. He also has good things to say about the department. "The faculty are very approachable and very passionate about mathematics. There was an eagerness in the way they taught it."
Now a graduate student at the University of Chicago, Bolt was a recipient of the Rinck Memorial Prize. The prize is one of the oldest awards on campus and is given annually to the senior student majoring in mathematics who has done superior work in mathematics. The fund was established by former students and friends as a memorial to William Rinck, professor of mathematics at Calvin College from 1905 to 1920.
Abigail Jager chose a mathematics major because she enjoys it and it comes to her naturally. Growing up with a father who was a math professor--Thomas Jager--the discipline was a way of life. "I've grown up with the perspective of mathematics," she said. This past summer, Jager conducted research in discreet probability at Michigan Technological Institute. She is considering pursuing graduate work after her senior year.
According to Venema, many people believe that a mathematics major will not get a person a job. This is far from the truth. A new handbook for majors cites a recent Jobs Rated Almanac, in which the top five careers were all mathematics-related: actuary, computer programmer, computer analyst, mathematician and statistician. Graduates of the department also work as teachers, professors, doctors, business leaders, economists, engineers, lawyers and even ministers. "This culture of problem-solving translates into success," Stob said.
But the real success of the department lies in the hands of professors who truly care about what they do. Zwier, who was awarded the college's 1992 Award for Exemplary Teaching, describes three strategies of a good teacher. First, "you have to get to know the students, get them on your side." Second, "you have to be excited about the subject-- they'll respect you for that." Third, "you have to be open. Lots can happen, but you must be in control of what happens."
The 14-member mathematics departments represents varying interests. "We think of ourselves as mathematicians and teachers. Some of us are more mathematicians, some of us are more teachers," Zwier said. Professors specialize among the three branches of upper level mathematics: algebra, topology and analysis. Some focus on education, some computer science, and some research.
Faculty members who conduct research are an important influence for students who may be interested in graduate school. "It's important that people know there is research in mathematics," Venema said. "It's an alive, changing discipline, full of new discoveries." Venema himself recently co-published a paper with two collaborating mathematicians, one from Vietnam and one from Japan. "It's astonishing-- there are no cultural misunderstandings in the world of mathematics," he said.
Mathematics professors often wear more than one hat. Retired professor Jack Kuipers recently completed a book on quaternions and rotation sequences. Professor Earl Fife co-moderates a mathematical archives site on the World Wide Web, a repository of software for teaching mathematics. Meanwhile Leestma and Nyhoff are still publishing computer science textbooks, joined by computer science professor Joel Adams. However, the computers shown on the covers of their newest books are not as big as washing machines.
The department publishes a newsletter called Transformations which is sent to 1500 alumni. Calculus classes changed radically when a new computer lab was ready for use in 1995. Now mandatory lab sessions allow students to operate Mathematica, a program which can do hundreds of advanced mathematical tasks in seconds. A new department homepage, accessible through the Calvin College homepage, provides catalog descriptions of mathematics courses, descriptions of faculty, programs, and departmental activities, as well as links to other internet sites of mathematical interest. The web address of the homepage is: www.calvin.edu/academic/math.