by Lizzy Doebel
During the spring semester of my junior year I began to look at research opportunities in math offered over the summer months. They’re called REUs: Research Experience for Undergraduates. I was offered an eight week REU at Illinois State University specifically for math undergraduates interested in teaching. Ironically, the university is also known as ISU and has a mascot that resembles Iowa State’s mascot, Cy. Throughout those eight weeks I met students who shared similar interests and goals, better understood what math research looks like, made a large sum of money, and had a wonderful time!
The REU consisted of twelve undergraduate math students from across the U.S., four high school math teachers, and two math professors from ISU. Our research was on the topic of graph theory. Many of us had never taken a class in this area of math so the two professors working with us spent the first couple of days explaining the terminology. After that we formed groups, were given ideas for potential projects, and let loose. We would spend six hours a day looking at our problems, experimenting through trial and error, and generalizing our results.
Six hours of math a day may seem like torture to you, but it was actually a blast! I was in a group with four other girls. We chatted about movies and sports, took buzzfeed quizzes, and talked about the Duggars while simultaneously working out problems. The problems we were solving had never been researched before and their results were unknown. We were able to write two papers based on our findings and they are currently en route to be published!
During our time at ISU, the 2014 FIFA World Cup was happening. We would take breaks from our research, set up a projector, order pizza, and watch the games. When we weren’t on campus doing research, we’d cook dinner as a group, play games and watch movies since we all lived in the same apartment complex, and participate in the fitness classes at the school’s gym. It was a nice balance of having fun while also working hard.
The greatest thing I took away from this experience was better understanding of math research and how I could use that information in a future classroom. We had high school students from Chicago spend a week with us at ISU. We taught them what we had learned and had them do their own research. It was neat to see them get excited about math. For many, they began to enjoy the subject of math because it became something more substantial than just equations and numbers on a sheet. They were discovering unknown solutions versus answering questions previously answered. I am thankful for this unique opportunity and I greatly encourage you to look for REUs offered in your major!