Program aims to multiply math graduate students

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Despite its name, undergraduates participating in UT’s Directed Reading Program can get a taste of the life of a mathematics graduate student.

For the program, around 100 undergraduate students take on an independent project and pair up with a graduate student, who they meet with weekly for a semester. Students have the opportunity to master a specific topic of mathematics, interact with their mentors and give a 15-minute talk on what they’ve learned at the end of the semester.

Andrew Blumberg, associate professor of mathematics, established the reading program in 2013 with funding from National Science Foundation. Blumberg said he modeled the program after one at the University of Chicago, created by Blumberg’s friends during his time there as a graduate student. Since then, UT’s program has grown to be the largest and most diverse in terms of numbers of women and underrepresented ethnic groups, Blumberg said. 

The Directed Reading Program exposes undergraduates to the life of a graduate student, Blumberg said. 

“The life experience of someone who’s a professor and 28 years older or more is basically inaccessible,” Blumberg said. “Many graduate students were college students four years ago, and they can really have something to say that’s much easier for undergraduates to hear and feel like it applies to them and their lives.”

The program also helps to foster a cooperative atmosphere within the department and exposes students to math outside of a traditional, structured curriculum, said Lisa Piccirillo, a mathematics graduate student and program organizer.

“The experience you have doing math as an undergraduate in the classroom is very different from the math you do as a mathematician: It’s wrapped up in lecture as this nice thing,” Piccirillo said. “(The program) can give undergraduate students a bit more insight into doing math on its own.” 

The program accepts applications from students of all majors each semester, and looks for students who have completed lower-level math classes, have specific interests and hold recommendation letters from faculty, Piccirillo said.

At the University of Chicago, program creators found that participants were more likely to study math and eventually apply to graduate school. Blumberg said it would be beneficial to institute similar programs based on one-on-one mentoring for engineering, physics and computer science students. 

“In a school like Texas where the undergraduate population is enormous, it can seem very impersonal and difficult to talk to faculty,” Blumberg said. “It seems good to have some bridge where people get used to talking to someone a little further along and pursuing some sort of science career about what that’s like.”