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College math on the rebound?

Many US campuses struggle to attract students to the subject, but the University of Rochester has found a formula for success

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There's nothing a math professor likes more than a pie-in-the-sky chalk talk with bright graduate students about matrix theory or the Riemann Hypothesis.

But mathematicians at the University of Rochester found out the hard way that soaring into the intellectual ether is no good for job security if undergraduate math students are left languishing.

Just six years ago, Naomi Jochnowitz, a Rochester math professor, watched in horror as the financially strapped school unveiled plans to chop its entire graduate math program. It quickly became a national cause célèbre, drawing protests from at least 12 Nobel laureates. If math was expendable, what next? English?

Today, Rochester's math bust has turned to boom. The graduate program was saved. And, strange as it may sound, math is hip on the western New York campus, where more than 5 percent of undergrads major in it.

That's about triple the national average, though, which means most math departments are still scrambling to attract students. Indeed, Rochester's success highlights the fact that there aren't nearly enough turnaround stories like it.

A study released last month by the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences (CBMS) shows that bachelor's degrees granted in mathematics fell 19 percent between 1990 and 2000, even though overall undergraduate enrollment rose 9 percent. The CBMS has been collecting such data every five years for decades.

Math mavens are not exactly panicking, but there is a growing sense of urgency about declines in math literacy undercutting the nation's technology-based economy.

In response, efforts to turn the tide in undergraduate math have focused on problems ranging from poor preparation of students in high school to math's reputation as nerdy or too demanding.

Calculus reform is not enough

Simply not driving students away has been a key focus of "calculus reform," the set of fixes applied to make the traditional gateway college math course more accessible. That approach, widely adopted over the past decade, focuses more on math concepts than on number crunching.

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