February 5, 2019

JONES | Cornell Needs an Undergrad Applied Math Department

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Pen and paper in hand, I felt a jolt of relief as I finished scribbling the last answer to a math problem set due in 20 minutes. Feeling accomplished, I paraded from Olin Library to Malott Hall, the mathematics building, hoping to find my TA’s office where homework is dropped off.

Upon arriving at Malott, I opened Blackboard to look for his precise office location. The result was appalling: My moment of accomplishment immediately receded as I discovered my TA’s office was located 15 minutes away in Rhodes Hall, which is by the Engineering Quad on the opposite end of the campus.

Fortunately, after sprinting to Rhodes, I somehow was able to submit my homework on time. It turned out my TA was an applied mathematician, and therefore, his office was located on the sixth floor of a building I had never heard of located far away from Malott.

I later learned my TA was a member of Cornell’s Center for Applied Mathematics, or CAM, a somewhat elitist program available primarily to Ph.D. students. Applied math, as distinct from “pure” math without any intended application, is a highly respected field by employers and researchers, with broad usage in statistics, engineering, social science and more. I was only a freshman when I learned this. Even now as a junior though, I remain bewildered by the question:

Why doesn’t Cornell have an applied mathematics department for undergraduates?

The lack of an undergrad applied math major bothers me so much because applied math holds great prominence at Cornell. According to the Cornell Department of Mathematics webpage, there are 44 faculty members in mathematics, 28 of whom do active research in applied math. Steven Strogatz, one of the most well-known mathematicians in the world, is a professor of applied mathematics.

And applied mathematics at Cornell is prevalent among not just professors, but also students. Cornell’s Mathematical Contest in Modeling, an annual university-wide applied math competition for undergraduates, “attracts students from many majors/departments” and “looks cool on your resume,” according to the contest’s website. Additionally, many students in other STEM departments double major with math, according to the math department website, for its “adaptability to a number of purposes. It can emphasize the theoretical or the applied.”

Not to mention, Cornell already has several undergrad departments for applied subjects, something it takes great pride in. The University has distinct departments for the studies of applied economics and applied physics, both of which are popular majors and fields among undergrads within their respective colleges. As such, a standalone applied math department would likely be both feasible and well received by the student population.

Instituting an undergraduate-centered applied math department would bring with it an abundance of perks. With the addition, Cornell’s plentiful faculty and graduate students could work more closely with undergraduates and more easily accommodate student research interests for a wider range of subjects. Several of the research areas available for CAM graduate students, such as mathematical finance and algorithms, are common prerequisites for undergraduates studying business and computer science, respectively.

Furthermore, the University could plan classes and host events related to applied math in a more organized manner. Currently, all courses, talks and competitions dealing with pure (i.e., non-applied) math are held in Malott Hall. But most classes and events related to applied math are scattered around campus; courses like Numerical Analysis (MATH 4260) are taught in Gates Hall, while others like Dynamic Models in Biology (MATH 3620) are taught in Comstock Hall. Having a centralized applied math department would create a single touchpoint for applied math, reducing the need to scatter courses across departments and colleges.

Finally, adding a department would greatly reduce the clutter of similar undergrad courses in the math department. In the math course catalog, there are listings for four multivariable calculus courses and four linear algebra courses, two core math courses. However, a student can only receive credit for one in each category because half of these courses are intended for engineers and non-math majors, and the other half for math majors. The jumble of similar courses in one department has inevitably led to confusion among my peers, uncertain about which class they should take. The addition would alleviate this issue while also providing alternatives for students less interested in taking pure math courses.

Benefits to the University aside, what’s most surprising about Cornell’s lack of the department is that applied math stands as a prevalent undergraduate field of study at other prestigious universities like UC Berkeley and Columbia. Creating an undergraduate department exclusive to applied math would continue to establish Cornell’s status as not only one of the top engineering school in the Ivy League, but also one of the top research institutions in the world.

Nile Jones is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Rivers of Consciousness runs every other Wednesday this semester. He can be reached at nnj9@cornell.edu.