A class of Davidson math students recently got the opportunity to move beyond textbooks and apply their academic skills to improve the community.
Associate Professor of Mathematics Tim Chartier teaches the class in math modeling, which challenges students to use mathematics to describe systems that often resemble real-world scenarios. This year, in cooperation with the Community Service Office, Chartier assigned students to partner with local non-profit organizations and create mathematical models that would meet one of the group's needs.
From revamping a sorting system at the Community School of Davidson to maximizing the number of parking spaces at the Ada Jenkins Center, the student projects tackled real-life challenges these organizations face.
"The projects showed the students that math doesn't have to be an isolated topic where you just solve problems and check them in the back of the textbook," said Chartier. "Students got to work with real people and real organizations who are very interested in knowing what they could do."
Chartier created six teams of students, and each worked with a different local non-profit group. Three teams focused on the Ada Jenkins Community Center. One created the optimal usage of space in the waiting area, another maximized the layout of the current and a future parking lot, and the third determined an optimal space layout for the Loaves and Fishes food pantry.
The Davidson Housing Coalition wanted a photomosaic of its logo created from smaller images that pictured its work. The Hinds Feet Farm, which offers services to people with brain injury, wanted a plan of the best places in the area to locate community programs for these people.
Finally, Community School of Davidson wanted to increase its efficiency in placing students into different service-learning programs, called "practicas." Students listed their top three choices of which program to join, but honoring the maximum number of those choices was a time-consuming manual process.
"Our goal was to create a program for easier data collection that yielded optimal assignments," explained team member Jennings Boley '10. Boley and fellow team members created an online program that sorts students electronically, saving the Community School staff the hassle of data entry and extrapolation. Boley is confident that the program will be useful, but recognizes that it isn't perfect.
"It's almost never the case that the model fits the problem perfectly," Boley explained. "It takes a bit of massaging to make it work. For example, our model will work best if there are only five to eight students who want each different practicum."
Though students produced models that could have an immediate impact on the partner organizations, their work was not the product of an upper-level class. Chartier noted that the course was designed for beginners in math modeling. "On the first day of the semester, we went over what math modeling actually is," said Chartier. "Now, they're math modelers who are able to apply what they've learned to the real world. It's been neat to see that growth."
Creating workable models wasn't easy, but Chartier was confident that his students had the "mathematical maturity" to work through their problems.
The fact that the models were to be utilized beyond the classroom provided extra motivation. "There was definitely an added incentive to do well on this project because it could really make a difference," Boley said.
Chartier's class is one of several community-based learning programs at Davidson designed to marry service with the goals of a particular course. Stacey Riemer, assistant dean of students for community service, considers community-based learning a holistic teaching approach.
"It gives the students an opportunity to match theory to product," Riemer said. "The experience is another way for students to learn what roles they can play as citizens after Davidson. Through community-based learning, students become aware of larger social issues while they learn at Davidson."