I am an undergraduate math major at a small state university in the US. Our math department has about 20 tenured/tenure-track faculty, including applied mathematicians and statisticians. We have only 3 current NSF grants, two in statistics and one in biomathematics. According to MathSciNet, only 4 of our faculty have published something this year. Additionally, our current department head mainly does applied interdisciplinary research, but I suppose it is not rare for math department heads to be in some kind of applied math field. To be fair, my university was founded less than 50 years ago, but I still want my department to become better.

Is there anything I could do as an undergrad to help improve my department? It's hard to say exactly what would make my department "better", but to be somewhat vague, I would consider research productivity and funding to be important factors to improve on.

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    "Funding" in math is a very volatile, and often irrelevant measure, especially for "out-state" places. It is not clarifying to think in such terms, because of all the skewing. It's not that the money is "really necessary", so lack thereof won't impede anything... apart from maybe having largesse to throw around... yes, to undergrads, but, ... More to the point would be militating for more-advanced courses to be offered. Pushing for this would help in many ways. Jun 20 '13 at 23:46
  • Paul, do you mean that I should convince my department to acquire more funding to go towards offering more rigorous courses (e.g. proof-based linear algebra versus applications-based linear algebra) or more upper-level courses (i.e. end of program courses besides the typical topology, analysis, and abstract algebra courses)? Jun 21 '13 at 2:11
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    Both less cook-book oriented, and higher-level. (I do think it is a mistake to exaggerate "rigor" in lower-level courses.) Jun 21 '13 at 14:56
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    @Matthew, MathSciNet isn't a good way to judge research activity: there can be very long delays -- a year, even more -- between math papers being written and their being listed on MSN. Jun 22 '13 at 11:42

Is there anything I could do as an undergrad to help improve my department? It's hard to say exactly what would make my department "better", but to be somewhat vague, I would consider research productivity and funding to be important factors to improve on.

There's not much you can do as an undergraduate to help improve research productivity or funding. It's not clear whether the department wants to improve in these ways, or should want to: there's nothing wrong with focusing on teaching. Even if the faculty do want to become more research active, or the administration wants them to, it's not easy and there's little you can do to make it easier. I'd be careful with how you frame things, since you could easily cause hurt feelings by giving your professors the impression that you consider them substandard.

Instead of focusing on what might improve the department in some abstract sense, I'd focus on what would create a stimulating, exciting environment for the current students. You don't want to be too demanding, and some things just might not be feasible, but it can't hurt to ask what could be possible and what it would take to make it happen. You could look into various sorts of activities:

  1. Advanced courses or independent study.

  2. Undergraduate research supervised by faculty.

  3. Informal mathematical activities: math club, Mathematical Association of America student chapter, Putnam team, etc.

If all of these things are regularly available, then your department is doing pretty well. Otherwise, you could try to initiate or reinvigorate some of them. You aren't likely to get clubs or courses for just one student, so you'll probably have to gather some other enthusiastic students. This may be the biggest way you could contribute, as a catalyst to bring together a group of students the department hadn't realized wanted or needed these activities.

  • Thanks for your answer! I was also thinking I could convince my department to apply for a NSF Research Training Group grant or to host an undergraduate math conference for the benefit of our math undergrads, but it would make sense to start with the suggestions you mentioned. I expected that I wouldn't be able to do much in the way of research or funding for my department, but I'll still leave this question open to see what others may suggest. Jun 21 '13 at 3:36
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    Just to add to this excellent answer, if you don't have one already, I suggest starting a student seminar series. Work with other enthusiastic students to organize a weekly (or whatever) seminar where the students give talks on various topics. This is beneficial for all of the students involved, and the faculty may take an interest as well.
    – Jeff
    Jun 21 '13 at 13:05
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    +1 For Jeff's suggestion. Organizing seminars is perfect for an undergraduate, and can go a long way towards generating excitement about research projects in your department.
    – user168715
    Jun 22 '13 at 15:17

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