On Feb. 18, scholars from around Pennsylvania traveled to Penn State for the inaugural Pennsylvania Math Alliance conference. The regional alliance, part of the larger National Math Alliance organization, currently consists of Penn State, Drexel University, Gettysburg College, and Bucknell University, each supporting mathematical sciences with the ultimate goal of increasing annual doctorate production for under-represented students in those fields.
The 2023 conference was highlighted by keynote lecture by Atiyah Harmon, the executive director and founder of Black Girls Love Math, student and recent graduate talks, and a tour of a wave tank in the Department of Mathematics used for applied math research.
Outside of members of the local alliance within Penn State, representatives from the Office of Graduate Educational Equity Programs and the Office of the Associate Dean for Educational Equity in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences served on the PAMath conference planning team to help bring the conference together at Penn State. The conference also served as an opportunity to strengthen PAMath regional alliance partnerships.
“This is the first time we have spun anything off in this region from the national alliance. We’ve been talking about trying to put together a regional alliance, but we weren’t really sure what the region entailed,” said David Hunter, professor of statistics at Penn State, who also added that the COVID-19 pandemic caused delays. “At the most recent national alliance conference in November, a bunch of us got together and decided, 'Let’s just define the region to Pennsylvania.'”
For Hunter, the advantage of local universities and colleges coming together is critical in assisting in the alliance’s mission.
“How do we get the word out to the thousands of students across just the commonwealth, who are both good at math and from under-represented groups, that have no idea what it might mean for their potential career to obtain a graduate degree in a mathematical science?” he asked. “How do we spread the word to those people? That is what the mission of the alliance is, and it feels like a problem that needs to be solved at a local level.”
The group also discussed ways to build a regional community that will help students in the mathematical sciences negotiate critical transitions during college, facilitate undergraduate research opportunities for students, and build a community and provide support and resources across the state, among other objectives.
The conference was a critical step for Hunter in moving the mission of the alliance forward.
“I think it is incredibly important just getting people in the same room, thinking about this goal and talking to each other not at the national conference, but in Pennsylvania,” Hunter said, adding he took away the day as a success.
“It was a huge success in that we did something, and it feels really great to have that behind us now,” he added. “We had some terrific talks and established some useful connections.”
According to Hunter, Penn State made sense as the prime location for this first conference for multiple reasons. Not only is the University one of the nine partners with the National Math Alliance, but the reach of the University to under-represented students is large.
“Penn State is a perfect place to talk about how to broaden our reach, particularly if you’re talking about undergraduate population,” he said. “Precisely because we’ve got 21 undergraduate campuses, and many of these campuses have a high fraction of under-represented groups in the mathematical sciences. We would love to target those students.”
Penn State also has helped push the national alliance to widen its scope when targeting those students.
“Graduate programs that don’t seem off-hand like math programs, like in the Smeal College of Business or the College of Health and Human Development for example, would love to have math majors enrolled in them,” Hunter said of Penn State’s goal in the overall alliance. “One of the things that Penn State insisted on when joining the alliance was that we view its mission a little more broadly, trying to broaden how we view mathematical sciences in relation to the mission of the alliance.”
Looking ahead, the local alliance is hoping to continue to make an impact supporting the national organization, and this conference was a strong start.
“Looking around at the conference, there’s multiple things that who knows where they could lead in the future, but this is just getting the ball rolling making these small connections,” Hunter said. “Hopefully, at the end of the day the future will show us a path that will help the mission of the math alliance broadly.”