Support builds as EPAG considers stats major

By Matthew Stone

As momentum builds in favor of the Mathematics and Computer Science department’s proposal to offer a third major, the normally private process of deliberating the proposal for a new major is becoming a subject commanding wide student interest on campus.Since the faculty’s Educational Policy and Governance Committee first rejected the department’s proposal to offer an Applied Mathematics and Statistics major, interested students have weighed in to show their support for the new offering. About 35 students have signed a petition in favor of the new major’s creation and Macalester College Student Government’s Legislative Body approved a resolution Tuesday backing the department’s proposal.

While curriculum issues fall within the domain of the faculty, student government officials said they saw an appropriate opportunity to weigh in.

“If students want this, it’s important to represent them. The faculty and the administration would look to MCSG,” said Academic Affairs Commission chair Alison Tray ’09, who drafted the student government resolution with MCSG President Franz Meyer ’09.

The Mathematics and Computer Science department already offers two majors-Mathematics and Computer Science. The third major in applied math would emphasize connections between math and other fields that require use of statistics, including biology, economics, public health and environmental science, according to the proposal the department submitted to EPAG members.

The major would also require that students participate in an “integrative experience,” such as an internship or summer research program, to gain practical experience in the field.

While majors in Applied Mathematics are a rarity at liberal arts colleges around the country, scientific fields are beginning to demand more comprehensive knowledge in statistics and Applied Mathematics.

“Applied math and statistics have become very important in the sciences in general,” said Mathematics professor Danny Kaplan, who developed the department’s proposal.

Stephanie Abascal ’08, a Mathematics major, agreed.

“If you’re going to grad school or into the job market, it’s a big difference” to have studies applied math, Abascal said.

EPAG members made a recommendation on the major this week, but the decision was not public before this edition went to press. Once EPAG releases its decision, the recommendation could stand and the department could begin to offer the major. If any faculty member raises an objection within three weeks, however, the full faculty would debate the new major, likely at February’s faculty meeting, according to EPAG chair and Psychology professor Kendrick Brown.

The department’s proposal to offer the major has been on EPAG’s agenda since early October, according to student EPAG representative Paul Maitland-McKinley ’09. After EPAG’s initial rejection of the Mathematics department’s proposal, committee members sent a series of questions to the department and later invited department faculty members to answer questions before the committee.

Questions centered on how the major fit within a liberal arts philosophy and why a separate major, rather than simply a track within the Mathematics major, was justified.

“We weren’t actually sure of the motivations behind it, since the math department already had two majors,” Maitland-McKinley said.

The Mathematics department has moved toward a greater emphasis on statistics in recent years with expanded course offerings and new hires who specialize in statistics and applied math. The transition has, in part, been related to student interest in statistics courses.

“There’s a lot of student interest in doing this,” Kaplan said.

One third of students at Macalester now take statistics courses and the statistics minor the Mathematics department offers is the second most popular minor on campus.

“They’ve kind of gone to hiring applied math people because the interest is so much there,” Abascal said of the department.

Since statistics and applied math specialists already comprise a substantial portion of Mathematics faculty, the department would not require additional resources to offer the required courses for a new major, Kaplan said. The major would require only one course that is not currently offered on campus.

“We have all those resources,” Kaplan said. “Why not exploit them?