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Central Connections Magazine

Math is Queen at CWU

By Valerie Chapman-Stockwell

Because mathematics is so successful at uncovering the nature of physical reality, 19th century German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss called mathematics the "queen of the sciences."

At CWU, students and professors are pushing mathematical boundaries, cracking codes, placing high in international competitions and having a blast doing it. If math is the queen, they're the jewels in the crown.

Weird numbers, Mozart,
and juggling

It takes some kind of teacher to get students to crowd around second-hand computers during spring break to look for the next big number—the next big weird number.

Dominic Klyve, a recent winner of the Henry L. Alder Award for Distinguished Teaching (Mathematics Association of America), inspires students to grapple with numbers in unique ways. His students broke the world record for finding the largest weird number* ever discovered—and they found it on their spring break, consecutively surpassing their own record several times.

Klyve's first-year statistics students analyzed a national nutrition survey and revealed a statistically significant link between freezers and hunger (if you have a freezer, you're less likely to go hungry). He developed a Math class for music majors that explores regression and correlation in Mozart sonatas and developed a mathematical equation for juggling ("A Zeta Function for Juggling Sequences," Journal of Combinatorics and Number Theory, 01/2012)

Attention, code breakers

People are fascinated by secret messages, encryptions and ciphers. Now CWU students can see if they have what it takes to be a code breaker.

The Kryptos competition, developed by CWU mathematics professor Stuart Boersma and his colleague Cheryl Beaver, a Western Oregon University mathematics professor, is a unique codebreaking challenge, open to undergraduate students. Kryptos is centered on the breaking, or cryptanalysis, of ciphers (secret writing). Each challenge presents contestants with a brief scenario together with some ciphertext (encoded message). The goal is to discover the original English plaintext message.

Undergraduate students, or teams of up to three, can participate. The challenges are based on historical ciphers that pre-date World War II. And while computers can be helpful in breaking some of the codes, most can be solved—if a little tediously—with paper and pencil.

"The main objective is to have fun," said Boersma. "Most students with a little familiarity with ciphers or code-breaking will be able to solve the challenges. They aren't overly technical nor do they use advanced mathematical algorithms."

Even if you don't formally compete, you can link to the Kryptos website to see previous years' challenges and solutions and test your skills at cryptology.

CWU places top 10 percent internationally

At the 2014 Mathematical Competition in Modeling (MCM), two teams from CWU ranked in the top 10 percent of more than 6,700 universities and colleges from all over the world. Both CWU teams earned a meritorious ranking—one of the highest honors. CWU was one of only three schools in the United States in which all the teams were rated as meritorious.

"I've known that our students were exceptional, but to see both teams score this high is really extraordinary," said James Bisgard, mathematics professor and advisor to CWU's teams.

The MCM is an annual international competition, with teams of three students developing and analyzing mathematical models to address real world questions. There are no single right answers to the problems presented. Teams are judged by the cleverness of their model and how well they communicate their model and its results in a written report.

"The Mathematical Competition in Modeling is one of the greatest opportunities I've been involved with thus far in my college career," said John-Paul Mann, a CWU senior majoring in mathematics and physics. "I used all the skills I've developed throughout my studies, including math, physics, logic, data analysis, effective essay writing and most importantly, team collaboration. Having all our hard work and hours pay off with a great standing in the competition wasn't too bad either."

The event is sponsored by the Consortium for Mathematics and its Applications (COMAP), an award-winning non-profit organization with the mission to improve mathematics education for students of all ages. COMAP works to create learning environments where math is used to investigate and model real issues in the real world.


* A weird number is one in which no combination of its divisors add up to the original number. Divisors are numbers that can be divided into a whole number to yield a quotient that is a whole number. For example, in the smallest weird number, 70, its divisors are 1, 2, 5, 7, 10, 14, and 35. No combination of these numbers will add up to 70. Weird!

The Department of Mathematics currently has more than 316 declared majors. It offers more than 60 courses, from algebra to the theory of numbers. Its Actuarial Science Program is the only major program offered in Washington State and one of only a few on the West Coast.

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