The University of Arizona

UA Math Department One of Nations Best

By Jeff Harrison, January 5, 2000

The American Mathematical Society (AMS) has recognized the mathematics department at the University of Arizona in Tucson as one of the nation's best producers of doctorate-level mathematicians. The UA was one of only five of such departments nationwide chosen for site visits by the Society's Task Force on Excellence.

In its recent publication on the nation's leading doctoral mathematics departments, the AMS task force cited the UA specifically for qualities such as innovative teaching methods, small class sizes and interaction with local high schools.

The task force focused on departments that offer doctoral degrees as a measure of the health of any university math program. These departments produce most of the nation's mathematicians. Much of the new research today, such as computers, physics and biology, are heavily grounded in mathematics.

The task force looked at several aspects of the UA mathematics department. One was entry-level undergraduate courses. Beginning in the mid-1980s the department engineered a complete turn-around in the way it handled lower-division classes. The result was smaller classes and a lower attrition rate. From 1985 to 1990, the passing rate in undergraduate math classes climbed from 55 percent to 77 percent. Enrollment in math classes overall climbed nearly 30 percent in that period.

Another was teaching. Every faculty member in mathematics teaches at the freshman level. The department has boosted its training program for graduate teaching assistants and offers regular seminars and workshops on innovative teaching methods to faculty and GATs. Recently, a non-tenure-track math instructor even won one of the University's highest teaching awards.

The UA mathematics department accomplished much of this by asking the administration for enough money to hire as many as 20 full-time instructors, plus visiting faculty and postdoctoral fellows, rather than tenure-track faculty. The department also started a doctorate program in math education to train new teachers, and a Mathematics Center that provides quick advice to undergraduates, including drop-in tutoring.

Also, the recent Cooperative Teaching Program brings in teachers from Tucson-area high schools and Pima Community College to teach, do research and take classes at the UA. The program is expected to improve math education at all levels. Both the mathematics department and the UA Program in Applied Mathematics, in existence since 1978, offer graduate mathematics students research opportunities in science and engineering with faculty members in other departments.