Beautiful, creative, exciting — math?

March 14, 2019 | Science
March 14 is Pi Day (3.14 – get it?), a perfect day to shine a spotlight on MacEwan University’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics.

Even if you’re not much of a numbers person, you can’t help but be taken in by the positive energy, tight-knit community and sense of excitement that buzzes through the department.

“Math is beautiful and very creative,” says Dr. Karen Buro, chair of the department. “That’s not a label many would put to mathematics, so it surprises people. But this is a creative, exciting place.”

Strength in numbers

The heartbeat of the department is Room 5-107, an administrative area with faculty offices set up around the perimeter – often with welcoming open doors. Walls are adorned with posters of Pascal, Pythagoras and other rock stars of the math world.

Right at the centre is a meeting room just for students, who drop in throughout the day to work out problems on the large whiteboards that line the walls. “I feel like I live in that room,” says Alex Mackie, a fourth-year student majoring in mathematics and applied statistics. “It is amazing to have a space where I can work around others who are struggling with the same material I am. Profs will often peek in to see how things are going or to chat or have lunch with us.”

Math is beautiful and very creative.
—Dr. Karen Buro

In a way, this room encapsulates just what makes MacEwan’s math department so special. Not only is it a great place for students to practice and sharpen their skills, it also fosters a sense of community, within groups of students, and between students and faculty.

“Community is important because of the subject matter,” explains Karen. “If you study a subject that is easy to explain to others, you can go home and tell your roommate about the fascinating things you’re learning. But that’s difficult to do with mathematics. And that’s why our students value this sense of community that we have here – these people think like them and are enthusiastic about the same things.”

Math is fun … seriously!

“What we do can be exhausting at times, so we have to have fun to balance it out,” says Dr. Cristina Anton, professor of mathematics and statistics. And the math department does exactly that, by regularly hosting events and organizing group outings for students and faculty members – including escape rooms and competitive curling.

One of the event highlights is Torus Talks, a series of presentations that shines a light on the beauty in mathematics and statistics. Some of the talks deal with pure math topics, but others look at the application of math in day-to-day life, in everything from electoral systems to puzzles to two-player games. “It’s pointing out math in places where people would not intuitively recognize it,” says Karen. “Sometimes we start with an idea or subject that everyone knows about, and we connect it to a concept that derives from mathematics. It’s taking something very fundamental and looking at it through the mathematicians’ eyes.”

You’re not bad at math

Of course not everyone who takes math and stats courses at MacEwan does so with a sense of enthusiasm. Students in other programs, such as Bachelor of Commerce, may be required to take math or stats classes as part of their degree. Those students often come in sharing a common belief – that they’re bad at math. But thanks to the mentorship of MacEwan’s dedicated faculty, they rarely leave with the same notion. “We want our students to succeed, so we work closely with them to help them develop their skills,” says Karen.

When people say ‘I’m not good at math,’ I tell them I’m not good at juggling, but I’ve also never practiced it.
—Dr. Christopher Ramsey

Dr. Christopher Ramsey, assistant professor, builds confidence in his students by stressing the importance of practice. He likens his introductory math courses to learning a language: Just as students had to practice spelling and grammar to understand books and poems, they have to practice math fundamentals in order to become fluent. “When people say ‘I’m not good at math,’ I tell them I’m not good at juggling, but I’ve also never practiced it. If you don’t try to learn it, you’re never going to be good. So I encourage my students to get lots and lots of practice.”

Cristina adds that students become more enthusiastic when they understand the possibilities. “Math might seem abstract and philosophical at times, but math is everywhere,” she says. “If a student wants to become an engineer, or a physiotherapist or work in business, there is a mathematical connection. Once they understand that connection, they get excited about the future.

“That’s my favourite part,” says Cristina. “I love seeing them start to dream and knowing that we inspired them.”

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