Inside USD

Faculty Grant Supports Math, Computer Science, Physics Students

Friday, December 18, 2009

labguyMathematics, computer science and physics faculty at the University of San Diego recently secured a nearly $598,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to attract more students to their respective majors, provide key interdisciplinary programming and to help groom more of tomorrow’s U.S. workforce in many important areas.

“We’re trying to recruit students into the three fields and we want to get the financial support for students to do these majors,” said Cameron Parker, an associate professor of mathematics and one of the grant’s principal investigators. “We hope the students are interested, but need some encouragement because (these majors) are known to be challenging.”

Parker said nine incoming students in fall 2010 and another nine in fall 2011 will each receive a $7,500 scholarship for four years. There are plans to have these students live together in the USD residence halls to interact, “grow together,” and meet other students in the same fields. He said a goal of the scholarship is to provide opportunities for more under-represented students — women, first-generation college students and certain minorities — to enter these majors.

“I think it’s a group of students that holds the potential for us finding a lot of really good students,” Greg Severn, department chair and professor in physics. He said he enjoyed working with one USD student, a McNair Scholar, last summer. “These are the kinds of students we’re looking for. The need in this country to supply our own high-tech people in the workforce is huge.”

The interdisciplinary component was very important to Parker and his fellow principal investigators on the grant proposal, fellow professors Eric Page in physics, Eric Jiang and Lukasz Pruski in math and computer science and Simon Koo, a professor in math and computer science and an affiliate professor in engineering.

“Hopefully this is one of a number of grants coming down the line to support these programs, especially the interdisciplinary aspect,” Page said. “I think it was one of the stronger parts of our proposal. We have so many fabulous faculty across all the natural sciences, math and computer science and to have that interdisciplinary nature here on our campus would really strengthen our programs. Especially with math and physics … there’s so much overlap between those two fields that for students to have a chance to be exposed to both will really enhance their future.”

Page said the 18 students who receive the scholarship are among all students who take a newly developed preceptor class that mixes in the different fields of study. He likened it to an introductory physics course that includes heavy use of calculus and algebra. “We want to integrate those ideas with computer science. We’ll design a preceptor that is similar in scope, but integrates with a computational side, where students will explore using, most likely, MatLab, a computational software, to do some programming within it and do slightly more complex problems.”

Jane Friedman, a USD math professor who this summer successfully helped secure a $900,000 grant to fund the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program to produce secondary science and math teachers for California schools, added her excitement for this latest grant and what it can mean to the departments, but, mainly, the students.

“We’re thrilled,” she said. “Hopefully this course will outlive the grant and we’ll continue using it in the future. All of these students will do an internship, either on or off campus, and have an undergraduate research experience. We hope it will have a snowball effect.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

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