Science & Technology Society & Culture

Students learn to use math to solve real-world problems

Jennifer Royal talks with her students as she teaches in her Calculus I class. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA)

A new UGA course explores the career possibilities for math majors

A new course at the University of Georgia is helping math students explore the wide variety of careers open to graduates in their field.

During the course, students work on real-world, industry projects such as helping the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia determine whether food needs are being met and if there are areas of scarcity in the communities they serve. Other recent projects include developing an app to help visualize and contextualize game data for UGA’s women’s golf team, and streamlining the data collection process for the investing firm Rubicon Crypto.

Jennifer Royal, senior lecturer in UGA’s math department, teaches students how to think critically and address these real-world problems through her inaugural Preparation for Industrial Careers (PIC) in Mathematical Sciences course.

PIC Math is a national program sponsored by the Mathematical Association of America, the National Science Foundation and the National Security Agency. It prepares mathematical sciences students for careers by engaging them in research problems that come directly from industry. The PIC Math program aims to increase awareness among mathematical sciences faculty and undergraduates about non-academic career options, provide research experiences for their students to work on real problems, and prepare students for careers outside of academia.

“I’ve been advising students for a long time, and some are easy to advise. I know what to tell them if they want to go into academia or teaching,” said Royal. “For those that don’t want to do either of those, this class helps show them what is out there and gives them a clear path on how to accomplish their goals.”

A strong component of PIC Math involves students working as a group on a semester-long undergraduate research problem from business, industry or government.

“The best part of this class was the collaboration aspect,” said Martha Sikora, a fourth-year mathematics major. “I learned a lot working with my group on our project for the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia, and it emulated what it could be like to truly work in industry with a math degree.”

“Going into this I had a lot to learn about all things crypto. My knowledge was essentially limited to the name Bitcoin,” said Caroline Weggeland, a third-year student mathematics major with a concentration in finance. “However, my group and I have learned about DeFi, Web3, Tokenomics and so much more. Now, we get to monitor the success of our mock portfolios and see how they compare to the professionals. The industry is rapidly growing and being on the forefront of it is very exciting.”

Royal also invited seven UGA math department alumni now working in industry to speak to her class. The guest speakers hold positions at Airbnb, Microsoft and Google among others.

“The speakers help the students understand what skill sets they have carried with them from school into industry,” said Royal, who is also learning from the returning alumni. “All of the speakers have recommended having some background in coding, and my students are using a program called DataCamp to learn coding skills in a self-paced environment.”

PIC Math will continue to be taught at UGA in fall 2022 and spring 2023.

“This class is not like anything else in our math program,” said Royal. “It is so much fun, for me and my students. It is a completely different experience for them, and it didn’t exist before the spring 2022 semester.”