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Celebrating Pi Day

Pi Day is upon us! It is always held on March 14, since Pi starts with 3.14. The latest video from Professor Marc Chamberland's youtube channel, Tipping Point Math, asks "How Many Digits of Pi are Useful?" With trillions of digits crunched out by supercomputers, one wonders whether these numbers have more utility than wall-papering a room. In the video, five answers are given to the question.

Changing the Face of Science

Jessi L. Smith, a noted expert on social psychology, will deliver the Scholars' Convocation at noon Wednesday, April 1, in Joe Rosenfield '25 Center, Room 101. The lecture is free and open to the public with a free pizza lunch provided.

Smith, a professor of psychology at Montana State University, has conducted extensive research on theories of stereotypes, with a focus on understanding the practices and policies that create equitable environments. At MSU, she chairs a 47-member team charged with enhancing faculty diversity and equity in order to foster learning among all faculty and students.

Smith's talk, titled "Changing the Face of Science: How to Create a More Diverse and Inclusive STEM Community," will feature Smith's work in experimental social psychological science. Smith will present her findings on the prevalent role of unintentional biases within the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) community, and discuss how to create more equitable environments in these fields.

Grinnell welcomes and encourages the participation of people with disabilities. Rosenfield Center has accessible parking in the lot to the east. Room 101 is equipped with an induction hearing loop system. You can request accommodations from Conference Operations.

Finding Faculty Mentors

At Grinnell, finding professors who want to mentor you is easy. Working with smart, engaged students is what professors love.

So when Karen Shuman and Chris French, associate professors of mathematics and statistics, decided to offer a summer research project to first- and second-year students, they had more students apply than they could accept.

“We thought we’d try a Mentored Independent Project (MIP) that would give students a taste of research and the mathematical writing process,” Shuman says. “Our hope was that the experience would encourage students to continue to take mathematics and statistics courses and to apply for MAPs [Mentored Advanced Projects, available to second- and third-year students] and off-campus programs in subsequent summers.”

Shuman and French selected six students to participate in the MIP. All had completed linear algebra or beyond. Lizzie Eason ’17 and Caleb Leedy ’16 were interested in math but had never done research before and wanted to find out what it was like.

Rachel Knak ’17 saw the project as a way to “solidify my decision to become a math major.” 

The Benefits of Math Research

During the first two weeks of the five-week MIP, students spent six hours per day learning about graph theory and spectral theory. For the next two weeks, they explored their own projects, with guidance from Shuman and French. In the final week, students focused on writing up their results and giving mini presentations to each other.

“The best part of the MIP was I got to do whatever I wanted to do with math,” Knak says. “I needed help from Karen and Chris, but my work was a lot more original than most math classes.”

“I got to dig in deep to what numbers mean,” Eason says. “I had more creative freedom.”

“Now that I understand math research itself,” Leedy says, “the process isn’t so foreign. It’s been very interesting and rewarding.”

French notices quite a difference among math students who’ve done research. Shuman agrees. “These experiences do far more than a year of courses.”

Developing a Community of MIPsters

“There was an energy and enthusiasm I haven’t seen before,” Shuman says about the students who became known as the MIPsters. “That was partly because of the community they formed.”

Students talking and gesturing towards at a white boardFrench agrees. “Caleb Leedy did really nice work on a project involving writing computer code to compute certain characteristics of graphs. Rachel Knak, meanwhile, was doing a more theoretical examination of certain aspects of graphs. I got so excited when the two students joined forces, and Rachel realized her project could be advanced because of Caleb’s code. “

“You could hear the cheering in the corridor,” Shuman says.

It wasn’t just the MIPsters supporting each other, though.

“Karen and Chris were super supportive,” Eason says. “They pushed us enough to get to the answers ourselves and helped us figure out what to look for.”

“They attacked problems in different ways,” Knak says.

Even though Shuman and French are married, Shuman says, “We’d never done mathematics together before. We weren’t sure how it would work, but in the end, we decided we’d like to do more math together.”

Joining forces to help students grow intellectually — that’s something Grinnell does well.

Lizzie Eason ’17 is majoring in math and theatre and is from Lamoni, Iowa. Rachel Knak ’17 is majoring in math and religious studies and is from Burlington, Iowa. Caleb Leedy ’16 is majoring in math and economics and is from Maitland, Fla.

For the Love of Science

Before classes begin, the Grinnell Science Project (GSP) brings together selected students who are interested in science and creates a community that helps them feel comfortable with college life both inside and outside the classroom.

“GSP was a huge blessing. For one thing, the program got me a head start on understanding the confusing passageways of the mysterious Noyce Science Center. But it did so much more than that. I met a lot of people who shared my common interests, was acquainted with professors that I had class with later in my college career, and gained a lot of confidence in myself during GSP,” says Lizzie Eason ’17, who participated in the program last year.

GSP students meeting with a birdOne aspect of the program is a week-long pre-orientation  program.  Over the course of a week, students learn about the services and structures of the College.

The program responds to different learning styles — favoring workshop- and project-based classes in addition to lectures — and provides both role models and contexts for the study of science. “Grinnell students feel that they are part of a scientific community, we accommodate different learning styles with different pedagogical approaches, and we involve students in faculty research from the beginning of their experience here,” says Jim Swartz, Dack Professor of Chemistry.

Faculty members discuss various aspects of Grinnell’s academic program and strategies for excelling in science and mathematics courses. The GSP students participate in both sample classes and a research project.

“It was nice to just get used to the college environment without having to stress about classes. I could take time to really make friends, get advice from professors, and just enjoy myself, which is something I don't think I would have had much time to do if I had come to Grinnell when classes began,” says Eason.

Students work together to solve a puzzleIn the early 1990s, Grinnell observed that students — especially women, first-generation college students, and students of color — would enter Grinnell intending to major in the sciences, then fail to do well in the introductory courses and choose a major in another division. With data gathered from students, the College discovered that environmental and socioeconomic factors were interfering with students’ academic success in the sciences.

GSP teaches science the way science is actually practiced. It also creates a peer as well as faculty and staff support network for students. In addition to GSP participants, lots of other students have benefitted from curricular changes that accompanied the Grinnell Science Project.

“One of the most significant measures of success is that components of the Grinnell Science Project are now mainstream throughout our science curriculum,” says Swartz. Grinnell’s introductory biology course, which is required for all biology and biological chemistry majors is project-based. Introductory computer science courses are designed similarly, and mathematics, chemistry, physics, and psychology courses use a number of active learning techniques.

In the three years before GSP began, an average of 42 women and eight students of color graduated with science degrees each year. By 2008, each number had more than doubled. Ninety women and 21 students of color graduated with science degrees that year. Hundreds of students have participated in GSP, and thousands more benefited from curricular changes and mentoring relationships established by the program.

Lizzie Eason ’17 is from Lamoni, Iowa and has not yet declared a major.

2014 GSP students, faculty, and staff

2014 Grinnell Science Project

The Art of Mathematics


Although he only made his debut in mathematical art this past January, Marc Chamberland, professor of mathematics and statistics, has already had pieces accepted to two juried exhibitions: His works Inner Square and Borromean Five were shown at the Joint Mathematics Meeting (January, San Diego) and The Bridges Conference (July, Netherlands).

Part puzzle, part artistic exploration, Chamberland’s work merges mathematical lessons with aesthetics, history, and popular culture. For example, Borromean Five, he says, is a “knot-theory type of comparison” to the game rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock, popularized on the sitcom The Big Bang Theory.

Read more about Chamberland’s art and the ideas behind it in: “The Art of Mathematics,” The Grinnell Magazine, Fall 2013, page 10.

Interested in a career in Actuarial Science?

Representatives from Nationwide Insurance will be on campus Tuesday, Sept 17 to discuss the actuarial profession and recruit for summer internships or careers. There will be a MASSS with the representatives, at noon in Noyce 2022 , and there will be individual meetings to talk to them in the afternoon. They will also have an all-campus presentation on the actuarial field at 4:15 PM in JRC 209.

You can learn more about careers through Nationwide here:

If you want to learn more about what actuaries due, check here:

Robert N. Noyce ’49 Science Center

The facility includes refurbished teaching and research laboratories, classroom and office space, a science library, a computer laboratory, and several study areas. The addition connects two of the wings with a courtyard in between. The building houses the departments of biology, chemistry, mathematics and computer science, physics, and psychology. Containing modern scientific equipment and instrumentation, the facility has laboratories, classrooms, and seminar rooms, which are equipped with electronic and other modern instructional tools. The building also houses the Kistle Science Library and the Physics Historical Museum. In the northeast section of the building, a greenhouse is used as an instructional and research facility.