Math space to be remodeled

USD receives $1 million grant to expose students to the creative applications of mathematics

Tyler Arden | Contributor | The USD Vista

While most are familiar with the concept of an art studio, it might be harder to picture a math studio. Borrowing ideas from traditional art studios and design thinking, the math department at the University of San Diego is reimagining a space for math students to learn and study.

Thanks to a $1 million grant from the Fletcher Jones Foundation, construction on the math department in the basement of Serra Hall is tentatively set to begin at the end of the academic year in May 2018. Not only will the project create a modern atmosphere and enhance the student experience, but it may also improve learning outcomes and research.

The department considered solutions before Professor Satyan Devadoss, PhD, was hired as the Fletcher Jones Endowed Chair of Applied Mathematics. With the departure of computer science from the math department and a promise in Devadoss’ contract to give him an extra dedicated space, the process to reimagine the physical space of the math department became a priority.

“The current space [in Serra Hall] was hacksawed in when the department was asked to move, and the space wasn’t designed for us,” Devadoss said. “It was the space that was here that just had a lot of offices.”

Much of this initiative stems from problems with the area that the math department currently occupies. The basement of Serra Hall is akin to a maze of hallways and locked doors, and lacks established spaces for students to study.

As a result of the grant, the area where three doors face one another in a secluded hallway will be unrecognizable following the construction. The new space will feature easier navigation, glass walls, and open spaces, including a dedicated study lounge for math students.

Devadoss said plans for the space were largely created with the help of two math students who tackled the project for their thesis. Danielle Latimore and Xiaoye Yang, graduates of the class of 2017, conducted research through surveys to determine student and faculty needs from the space. From there, they built physical and digital models to represent the current space and future possibilities.

Though the entire space will see a transformation, the project is centered around the concept of a math studio. With an emphasis on group problem solving, collaborative learning, and faculty research, the studio space is anticipated to satisfy current unmet needs. It’s a concept that Devadoss said he has considered for nearly 20 years, though was only recently able to concretely understand what it would entail.

“Math is the queen of sciences,” Devadoss said. “If anyone should have a lab, we should have a lab. I want to use the lab to do really cool math research and push the boundaries of math in a physical space.”

As a professor of applied mathematics, Devadoss explores the physical aspect of math. His concept for the lab is built around that notion. Where math is normally something that gets erased and left behind, the new lab would allow students to leave projects out and build on them over time. This also presents the chance for students to fail and improve their thinking skills, while rebuilding models along the way in a physical world.

Devadoss sees the lab as an opportunity to meaningfully pull students into the realm of math and its applications.

“I didn’t want to do it [design the math lab] just so that students had a great time doing it,” Devadoss said. “I want to do really cool math and that would attract students to do it. If it’s just a showcase, then they’re going to be like, ‘You’re just PR’ing this so I get excited and that’s dumb.’”

Sophomore and math major Andy Nelson is currently in Devadoss’ Discrete and Computational Geometry class. The course is largely project-based, with students taking part in open-ended opportunities to apply and further develop their understanding of the concepts taught in class. Much of Nelson’s work so far has centered around art gallery problems.

“It’s a lot more creative than just solving problems like you think of your typical math homework,” Nelson said. “It should be fun to have a place to do that.”

Nelson said that most students never see the abstract thinking and creativity that happens in math because they quit before they reach that point. The vision of the studio is to expose students to the creative and applied potential that math holds.

“This whole studio is how real math, at least how I envision, is done,” Nelson said. “The classic vision is you got some white-haired dude by himself for hours with a chalkboard full of random equations and stuff you can’t understand. Some of that goes on, but the reality is that mathematicians are trying to solve physical, real-world problems.”

The unique concept of a math studio also fits with the university’s Envisioning 2024 strategic plan, focusing on engaged scholarship and liberal arts education for the 21st century. The math department anticipates the studio space will serve as an example of how to make these goals a reality, and isn’t a concept that is in place at other universities.

With the departure of computer science opening doors to explore the mission of the math department as its own entity, Devadoss is also hoping to help lead that conversation through his focus on applied mathematics and position in the department. Notably, the department is exploring introducing an applied math track.

Devadoss explained that such a move would place a stronger emphasis on liberal arts, lower the barrier of entry for students, and meet them at their interests. Whether they be studies like architecture or linguistics the move will still teach core math skills.

“When I think about applied math, I think about anybody walking into the door of math through any language,” Devadoss said. “I’m introducing new courses, a new major, and what it will look like. I’m not looking at what it has been in a cool way for the past 30 years, but what we could incorporate for our students for the next 30 years.”

The sweeping changes and opportunity to make an impact were part of what motivated the Fletcher Jones Foundation to provide such a large grant. The foundation has continued to be a longtime partner for USD, providing over $5 million in support to fund two endowed professorships in addition to other capital projects like the construction of Mother Rosalie Hill Hall.

These grants were largely possible because of a close-working relationship developed between the foundation’s Executive Director Christine Sisley and the university over the years. When USD’s Senior Director of Foundation Relations Annette Ketner found out that Sisley was retiring, she jumped into action.

“We asked [Sisley] if she would consider one more large request from us, and she agreed to review it,” Ketner said. “I was aware of Dr. Devadoss’ interest in remodeling the math space, so we worked with him to prepare a proposal which we submitted.”

Much of the opportunity came from Devadoss’ meeting with the people from the foundation to introduce himself to the organization since he is the Fletcher Jones Endowed Chair of Applied Mathematics. At that meeting, Devadoss said he highlighted the perfect circumstances and opportunity to make a big difference in the math department.

“I drove up to the Fletcher Jones office and I met with the director of the program to introduce myself,” Devadoss said. “And they were like ‘that’s awesome’ and asked if I had any cool plans for the future. I said, ‘Speaking of which,’ and pulled out this [model of the proposed renovations].”

From that, the math department secured a grant that Devadoss said exceeded even his expectations. Where he was hoping to raise around $300,000 to start the process of fundraising, the foundation offered a significant grant to cover the entire cost.

The redesign of the space will not begin until after classes finish in the spring semester, with construction scheduled to be completed before the start of the fall semester. While the new student lounge and math studio will be open for students, Devadoss suggested a longer outlook for fully realizing the potential of the studio space.

Just as a student’s project in the studio would, Devadoss plans to discover the use of the math studio through a process of experimentation filled with trial and error. The space will not be set in stone either, with Devadoss anticipating to replace and rearrange furniture every few years to meet changing needs.

“I want a place where getting wrong answers is the norm,” Devadoss said. “We’re going to keep doing this thing until it starts clicking. For me to say I know exactly what a math studio is supposed to be like is dumb. What do I know? It doesn’t exist. I want to fool around with these things.”

This space is meant to engage creativity and show that math is not about getting the right answers, but rather about learning through finding wrong answers and innovative solutions.