Spring Math Course Prepares Students for Industrial Careers

If you’re of the mindset that majoring in mathematics means pursuing an abstract career in academia, research, or teaching, Professor Melanie Brown forgives you—and she also has a lesson for you. This spring, the associate professor and program director of Applied Mathematics, is excited to bring a new perspective to her students about their careers through a special course developed in partnership with the Mathematical Association of America.

The chosen topic for MTH 400: Advanced Topics of Mathematics, Preparation for Industrial Careers in Mathematical Sciences, was designed to teach both students and faculty about the opportunities for non-academic careers in mathematics fields. It prepares students to apply their skills in areas like technology, business, animation, and guides them to use their knowledge to solve local, national, and global problems. “I’m really excited about this class and getting the opportunity with my students to take a lot of the math ideas and concepts that I teach in other classes and put them to work doing great things in the world,” Brown says.

Students in the Brown’s PIC Math class will split into two groups, one of which will work with the Office of the Provost here at Champlain College. They’ll be developing data visualizations that represent how curricula in different majors align with the college’s Competencies. Through the use of different graphics and charts, the students will give the office an accurate picture of where those alignments stand and how they might be improved upon for future program design. 

Students in the other group will partner with Working Fields, a mission-driven staffing agency that aims to provide support to those with significant challenges and barriers to employment. These students are helping Working Fields expand their New England-based operation into Springfield, Massachusetts. They’ll research the area, develop a model to understand the area and potential locations, and then evaluate the best course of action for this expansion. Mickey Wiles, CEO of Working Fields, is excited to get started with Brown’s students: “I felt confident when I left there that we’ll have a good project team.”

Working Fields uses recovery-based peer coaching and aids people who may have trouble in their background checks, unhoused populations, and anyone in Vermont who needs support finding a career. “When you have a certain amount of baggage or just a lack of confidence, just getting a job isn’t always enough. Getting a job and then being supported is critical because there are so many other problems people must deal with,” says Wiles. Brown and Wiles were connected through Champlain’s liaison at Hula, and Wiles was happy to both receive help and give experience to students.

Brown has been interested in the supportive programming offered through the  Mathematical Association of America’s PIC Math program for quite some time, but the stars didn’t align for her until recently. “I was really excited when I saw the applications open and to be able to actually apply for this program, because preparation for industrial careers in math is everything that Champlain has ever wanted to do with our math program.” The program is designed for faculty professional development and teaching professors how to get their students connected for career opportunities.

True to its focus on interdisciplinary application, Brown’s class isn’t limited to just Applied Mathematics majors. She is welcoming students in other majors like Game Programming, Computer Science, and Data Analytics, and is excited about the variety of students that will get to experience the class, saying, “I think it’s also going to be a real benefit. I keep emphasizing to everybody that each one of them brings a unique set of strengths to their team that only they can bring.”

Not only are the students gaining professional hands-on experience through Brown’s class, but they are also being given the opportunity to present their work at the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics conference in Spokane, Washington, this July. There, at least one student from the class will participate and observe presentations from mathematicians from all over the country about their current work and research.

As the semester gets underway, Brown hopes the class will empower her students to pursue their passions and search for meaningful careers. She notes that, just by the nature of these applied PIC Math projects, her students may have to come to their own conclusions and solve their own problems, but they will have a richer experience for it.

“What it comes down to is students being comfortable with the unknown. There’s not that one answer for everything. Sometimes you find the answer doesn’t already exist,” Brown says. Breaking out of the traditional molds of mathematics and exploring new uses for that knowledge is what PIC Math is all about. Most importantly Brown hopes she can mirror her students’ curiosity and dig into the material right alongside them throughout the rest of the semester.

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