UND math students go far beyond solving X

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Teams use critical thinking and statistical modeling to find real solutions for Grand Forks planners

UND students (left to right) Thomas Iken, Sierra Walker and Josh Canfield say attending the Math 460: Mathematical Modeling course has been an eye-opening experience. Says Walker of the class and the partnership with planners: “When you’re a student and you’re learning math and doing problems, you’re usually kind of prepared for how to do it. But this time, we were given the problem, and it was up to us to solve it. It really showed that even when you think you can’t accomplish something or don’t know enough, you can figure it out and eventually find a solution. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

A problem plus a semester plus a heckuva lot of high-value experiential learning equals a highly memorable academic experience, a trio of UND Math say the students.

Because even though it started out as a skinny word problem of just four lines, the work of the students in partnership with Grand Forks city planners has led to a formula that could improve the local quality of life for years to come.

“It was definitely not your traditional math class,” associate professor of math Jeremy Bartz said of the course “Math 460: Mathematical Modeling” last spring. “It was arguably the hardest homework problem they had to solve as undergraduates, but hopefully it was also the most rewarding.”

Plus, all the hard work that poured into the summer would come with a big bonus: an August trip to Philadelphia, where seniors Josh Canfield and Sierra Walker and junior Thomas Iken got a chance to pitch their work at a three-day math convention of Comic-Con Proportions.

“It was really exciting to see how the math mindset can be useful in so many different careers,” Canfield said. “I used to think, ‘Sure, majoring in math will help me figure out very quickly how much I’m going to tip my delivery driver, but not much more than that.’

“I didn’t necessarily believe it, but this course really proved to me that math is a major subject where you can take everything you learn and apply it to multiple areas of expertise. Database management is just one step away. Analyzing the data to find useful patterns is just another step. It was truly a crazy awakening and I think every math student should experience it.

UND assistant professor of mathematics Jeremiah Bartz (left) and professor of mathematics and associate dean of the UND College of Arts & Sciences Ryan Zerr applied for and won a grant to participate in the Mathematical Association of America’s PIC Math program , officially known as Preparation for Industrial Careers in the Mathematical Sciences. Student Josh Canfield said this about the course they developed: “Before this course and before Philadelphia, I think I was a bit in the dark about the whole math community. The career paths of mathematicians are not always so obvious. You don’t see what we’re doing because a lot is going on in the background. But what this course really showed me is that we are everywhere and we do really cool work. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

To make the connection

It’s the connection Bartz had hoped his students would make when he challenged them last spring to apply their traditional textbook knowledge to real-world research.

Earlier, Bartz and his fellow math teacher Ryan Zer applied for and received a grant to participate in the Mathematical Association of America’s PIC Math program. Formally known as Preparation for Industrial Careers in the Mathematical Sciences, PIC Math is designed to enhance students’ abilities to problem solve, communicate, and think critically and independently while partnering on a project with professionals government, business or industry.

In this case, the partners were planners from the Grand Forks Department of Community Development.

“I think the UND is an incredible resource for the Grand Forks community. We have a lot of talent and we are developing a lot of talent,” Bartz said. “So it’s a wonderful experience for students to combine our math expertise with the city. We can work together to help them find answers to some of the questions they may have been interested in, but lacked the time or good math skills to explore. »

It all adds up to a win-win

Zerr, who is also Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, called the course and the partnership with the city a win-win. Grand Forks gained valuable research with far-reaching impact, and students learned additional skills – including an introduction to popular Python and R data science programs – as well as new perspectives on possible internships and career opportunities .

“Because the entire program is project-driven and collaborative, we had to come up with ideas for projects that would involve data analytics and could also help our partners at City Hall,” Zerr said.

Four other teams in the class were simultaneously tackling their own data science modeling projects. Projects included everything from creating models to accurately estimate the costs of ongoing services such as street maintenance and leaf pick-up to analyzing the ideal spatial distribution of schools, parks, police and fire stations versus neighborhoods. Yet another was to develop a method of analyzing residential and commercial properties taking into account types of subsidies or incentives.

In search of data

For the Canfield, Walker and Iken team, the project involved sifting through existing public data stacks to create three neighborhood statistical models for Belmont Road in Grand Forks using a technique called cluster analysis.

It’s complicated, but Iken explained it this way: by looking at about eight development characteristics, such as the year the houses were built, the depth of the land and the effective frontage of the land, as well as the equity in the land and building, students were able to group, or cluster, sections based on common history and attributes.

And because the stretch of Belmont Road represents developments ranging from brand new to more than a century old, then planners could logistically use the same models to extrapolate data for “similar” neighborhoods elsewhere in the city. .

This would allow them not only to forecast potential infrastructure improvements – for example, improvements to underground pipelines, roads, curbs and gutters – but also to compare house values ​​and sizes to break down future maintenance costs. relative to the size of the property.

The project was large and included a lot of trial and error and interaction with instructors and planners.

“We expected students to be connected and attentive to the needs and constraints of their customers,” Zerr said. “When you exchange a lot of technical information, you also learn to be effective communicators – learning each other’s language – and honing all sorts of other value-added skills that naturally occur when working in the world. real but are not necessarily present in a typical math class.

Lasting impact

Although the main mission began with a single paragraph, Bartz said the resulting research has the potential to have a lasting and powerful impact on the city’s future development.

In fact, he said, planners said students identified many factors they had never considered before.

The course has already had an impact on the students too.

“One of the great things about employment, and especially in the tech world, is that jobs are constantly changing and the skills you need are constantly changing,” Bartz said. “This course allowed students to be nimble, adaptable and creative, which is very atypical for math courses, which usually focus more on technique and theory.

“The ability to solve a complex problem, bounce ideas off of each other, and solve it yourself is an extremely marketable job skill in today’s world.”

All three students echoed that sentiment, adding that the experience gave them either a new direction or a specific career boost.

For Walker, the course was “definitely an incredible opportunity” that solidified his decision to start pursuing his master’s degree in Data Science Next year. And for Iken it was a “career jump point”.

“It was my first big achievement at the college level,” he says. “It may have been a lot of extra work, but taking the risk of choosing this internship was definitely rewarding. This is something that will stand out on my resume.

And Canfield said he’s seen the proof of that before.

“I feel like this is my first real college achievement. I’m really proud of it and I think any potential employer who sees what we’ve done will be impressed,” he said.

Then, he added with a laugh, “I’ve talked to three potential employers about it so far, and all three seemed clearly impressed, so I guess it’s true.”

Janelle Vonasek.

About the Author: Janelle Vonasek graduated in 1989 from the University of North Dakota, where she earned degrees in editorial journalism and public administration. The longtime Grand Forks Herald design editor and writer is now the Special Projects Editor for UND Today. She lives in East Grand Forks with her husband, James, and they have three daughters, all of whom are graduates or students at UND.

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