It seems self-evident: Undergraduates can learn a lot from graduate students in their discipline, and in turn, graduate students can learn from postdoctoral students. But often they don’t, because they’re never given the opportunity.

The effects of this can only be bad for the students—and for their departments. But in the Department of Mathematics at Indiana University Bloomington, “we want to get everybody talking to everybody else,” says Darrell Haile, professor of mathematics. “We’re setting up ways for that to happen.”

This communication has been made possible by a five-year, $2.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The grant is known as VIGRE (Vertical Integration of Research and Education in Mathematical Sciences). Currently, it’s distributed to 31 universities around the country. VIGRE is in its third year nationally and its first at IU.

Indiana University Bloomington professors Darrell Haile, back left, and Allan Edmonds, back right, oversee mathematics department programs aimed at improving and expanding research support for undergraduate and graduate students. Courtesy photo |

Haile and his math department colleague, Allan Edmonds, direct and oversee the project at IUB. VIGRE has three components: the development of undergraduate research-experience and analytic problem-solving courses, graduate mentoring programs in teaching and career development, and postdoctoral fellowships. Haile and Edmonds are setting up a program that will create stronger links between undergraduates, graduates, and postdoctoral students in mathematics at IUB.

“There seems to be a slowdown of graduate students taking math,” says Edmonds. “We’re looking to increase the flow through the pipeline of people pursuing a math degree.”

Edmonds senses that students choose other options because they believe a mathematics degree offers them a severely limited range of career paths. “They think it’ll only qualify them to teach math, which is totally wrong,” he says. Students may also be concerned that the field of mathematics is an isolated one with no well-developed system of support, but Haile and Edmonds are changing that view as well.

Over the summer of 2001, three IU undergraduates were awarded a stipend to take part in an eight-week research project. “Two of those three are continuing their projects,” says Edmonds. “One of them presented a paper to a conference of the Mathematics Association of America and won an award.” A good start, and one that Edmonds and Haile hope to build on. “Every summer, and each semester of the academic year, we’ll support three to five undergraduate projects,” Edmonds says.

In addition, six new graduate students
were awarded fellowships that enabled them to come to Bloomington in early August
2001, a month before the beginning of the semester, for the three-week Jumpstart
Program. “They had sessions with faculty on fundamentals of advanced mathematics,”
says Edmonds, “to speed up the process of getting over the first hurdle.”The
plan is to get senior graduate students involved in Jumpstart next year, offering
their experience to their newer colleagues.

The NSF carries out an annual review of VIGRE and lists various criteria for
success. “They’d like to see the completion time for graduate students
come down,” says Haile. “The average now is six years. They’d
like it to be five.” Other indicators will be the percentage of math students
who move successfully to the next tier—undergrad to grad, grad to postdoc—and
in the longer term, the kind of employment they find.

Although VIGRE is barely out of the starting gate at IU, Edmonds has already seen its effects. “After we announced the VIGRE grants in 2001,” he says, “our graduate and postdoctoral application pools improved.”

While it may be true that mathematics is a more solitary field than most, Haile sees a definite move towards greater interaction.

“When I left graduate school,”
he says, “most math papers had one author. It would take forever to collaborate
with someone by mail. Now it’s easier to send drafts and comments by e-mail
or fax, and multiple authors are much more common.” So VIGRE is a timely
intervention, offering universities the means to train mathematicians not only
in advanced studies, but also in the art of collaboration. *—N. R.*