UH Hilo giving students a dose of PURE Math

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Date: Wednesday, August 8, 2012
Contact: Alyson Kakugawa-Leong, (808) 974-7642

For Immediate Release

For some, mathematics is a tedious, intimidating discipline with all the pleasure and enjoyment of a root canal. But don’t tell that to the two dozen students who spent much of their summer taking part in the Pacific Undergraduate Research Experience in Mathematics (PURE) Math Program located at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo.

“I love math so it doesn’t feel like work,” said Sam Jean-Baptiste, a junior majoring in Applied Math and Chemistry at Emory University in Georgia.

Jean-Baptiste was one of 12 students in this summer’s five-week Interns, or pre-research program, introducing students to topics not typically included in undergraduate math curriculums. PURE Math also offers an eight-week Residents, or research program, which introduces upper-level undergraduates to active fields of mathematics led by UH Hilo faculty and seasoned, visiting researchers who conduct colloquia and symposia on their research and mathematical journeys.

The program’s goal is to encourage more Pacific Island students and under-represented groups to earn degrees and pursue careers in math sciences. This year’s session attracted a diverse group of 24 students from Hawaiʻi, the mainland and Pacific, including American Samoa and Kosrae (Micronesia).

The joint initiative between UH Hilo and Sam Houston State University is the only Mathematics Research Experience for Undergraduate (REU) in the state. It is funded by a $1.5 million five-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and a two-year award from the National Security Agency (NSA). UH Hilo’s portion is $707,718 from NSF and $60,000 from NSA. Operations are housed at UH Hilo with staff provided by the two partner institutions in addition to the College of the Holy Cross, Duke University and the University of Houston.

PURE Math conducted its first session last summer with students from the Federated States of Micronesia and Guam taking part in the Interns program. UH Hilo Assistant Math Professor Roberto Pelayo, the grant’s principal investigator, said one student from that session was in this year’s inaugural Residents program, while several others either have or will be accepting admission to graduate school.

“Many are now seeing themselves for the first time as contributing to the math community,” Pelayo explained. “There’s no science that doesn’t use math in some capacity, so a strong mathematics background provides students with the analytical skills to think critically and independently solve problems.”

Pelayo believes PURE Math can attract more Pacific Island students and other under-represented groups to mathematics by providing opportunities and outreach closer to home, where their comfort level is greater. Returning student Jesse Robert of Kosrae said the program’s support system is important to students like himself, who are often reluctant to seek help and direction.

“Being part of this program means a lot to me,” Robert said. “It shows that there are great math people committed to my success in earning a degree in mathematics, and that where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Ashlee Kalauli, a UH Hilo senior and Math major with a minor in Chemistry, saw the value of mathematical applications first-hand with her research project as she and her classmates developed a program to identify central configurations for solving problems in celestial mechanics.

“This program has been inspiring from day one,” Kalauli said. “The work is rigorous and demanding. But the faculty is very supportive and the professionals they bring in to speak to us are extremely motivating.”

Alyssa Loving, a sophomore Math and Computer Science major at UH Hilo, enrolled in the Interns program, and said what she’s learned has made her more confident going forward.

“PURE Math has taken the intimidation factor out of math, which can be daunting,” Loving said. “Now I not only know I can do it, but want to do it.”

But students aren’t the only ones giving PURE Math two thumbs up. UH Hilo Chancellor Don Straney dropped in on one of the sessions, where he met with faculty and students and admits he came away impressed.

“Student success in STEM disciplines like math is a key to our goal of developing a highly trained workforce,” Straney said. “PURE Math is a great example of the outside-the-box thinking that gets results.”

By the end of the grant’s funding, 114 STEM undergraduates and several junior faculty members wishing to engage students in research will be served by the program.

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