Math Department’s Broad Career Focus Attracts More Students

An increased emphasis on career options available to students majoring in mathematics has led to significant growth in the number of students in BYU’s Department of Mathematics.

Over a seven-year span, from 2004 to the beginning of the Fall 2011 semester, the number of students majoring in mathematics has increased from 164 students to 271 students. This growth is significant, since many other universities have seen a steady decline in the number of math majors during recent years.

“We’re doing a really good job, because if you compare [us] … to other math departments around the country, I think we’re growing at a time that many of the others are not,” said Tyler Jarvis, chair of the Department of Mathematics.

“One of the main reasons is that students didn’t really realize what kinds of career options are available for math majors,” Jarvis said. “They thought if they major in math, the only thing they could do is teach. Teaching is a great career … but it’s not the only thing you can do with a math major.”

Four years ago, the Mathematics Department began a “Careers in Math” speaker series to help students overcome this perception. Each fall, five to seven leading mathematicians from business, industry and government come to BYU to talk about how they use mathematics in their careers. These visiting mathematicians have careers in operations research, financial analysis, law, medical research, business, engineering, actuarial sciences, programming and movie production.

A new class was also introduced in the department curriculum four years ago called, “Introduction to Being a Math Major.” Students are able to learn about internships, careers and opportunities available for math majors at BYU. This class emphasizes student academic advisement, and now over 90 percent of students in the department meet with an academic adviser annually.

Because faculty members continue to stress the importance of mentored research and internships, the demand for BYU math students is rising. There are approximately eight times as many employers who want math students than there are students who want to do internships.

“We have probably the biggest mentored research program [in mathematics],” Jarvis said. “We have excellent faculty, so all those things come together to make it a really attractive major at BYU.”

The opportunity for undergraduate students to work with faculty on cutting-edge research has set BYU apart from other math departments around the country. Approximately 70 to 80 students participate in undergraduate research every year at BYU. A few students have actually chosen the BYU Mathematics Department over math departments at top universities for the quality mentoring experience they can expect to receive.

“We want to be recognized as the number one undergraduate math program in the United States,” said Michael Dorff, director of the Center for Undergraduate Research in Mathematics at BYU. “So we’re working on that. And we’ve had some external [reviews by] professors at other universities say that it’s a feasible goal for us.”

By Chris Scheitinger Posted on