Partnership Creates Equation for Stronger Math PhD Preparation
UT Dallas, UTRGV Join Forces in Initiative Focusing on Boosting Diversity in Graduate Applications

UT Dallas mathematics senior Katelyn Clark and her classmates learn about abstract algebra in a hybrid version of the course developed from the new partnership between the University and UT Rio Grande Valley.

A new initiative involving two sister institutions in The University of Texas System aims to prepare students better for graduate studies and careers in mathematics while enhancing diversity among applicants.

Last fall UT Dallas received a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a program in collaboration with UT Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) that would encourage more students from underrepresented groups to pursue PhDs in math.

The partnership created Increasing Mathematics Potential across Texas (IMPacT), which combines innovative educational practices with industry connections.

According to a ranking of the “100 Best Jobs of 2019” by U.S. News & World Report, demand for mathematicians and statisticians is expected to grow approximately 30 percent by 2026. Employees with advanced degrees in mathematics, statistics and data science are sought after in sectors such as banking and finance, technology, health care and energy exploration, and at government agencies like NASA.

“If we want to increase the pool of applicants for graduate school, we first need to enhance upper-level undergraduate classes so students are better prepared to pursue graduate studies,” said Dr. Vladimir Dragovic, professor and head of the Department of Mathematical Sciences at UT Dallas who leads the collaboration with Dr. Timothy Huber, director of the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences at UTRGV.

With six locations across the Rio Grande Valley, UTRGV is classified as a minority-serving institution, with more than 87 percent of its student body being Hispanic. While UT Dallas has a PhD program in mathematics, UTRGV does not.

Of the 947 U.S. citizens and permanent residents who received doctoral degrees in math and statistics in 2016, only 63 identified as Hispanic or Latino, according to a recent report from the National Science Foundation and the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics.

As part of IMPacT, Dragovic and his colleagues developed hybrid versions of five of the most advanced undergraduate math courses — Abstract Algebra 2, Mathematical Analysis 2, numerical analysis, problem solving and mathematical statistics — blending online instruction with in-person interaction. Good performance in these courses indicates to PhD admission committees that a student is well-prepared for the rigors of a doctoral program, Dragovic said.

We have built this joint infrastructure between two geographically distant universities with distinct student populations and resources, and we hope it will serve as a national model.

Dr. Vladimir Dragovic, professor and head of the Department of Mathematical Sciences at UT Dallas

In January both campuses began teaching the first two classes — Abstract Algebra 2 and Mathematical Analysis 2 — with 65 students at UT Dallas and 12 at UTRGV. Dr. Carlos Arreche, assistant professor of mathematical sciences at UT Dallas, and Dr. Elena Poletaeva, math professor at UTRGV, teach the algebra course, while Dr. Mieczyslaw Dabkowski, professor of mathematical sciences at UT Dallas, and Dr. Josef Sifuentes, assistant professor at UTRGV, teach the analysis class.

The format involves synchronous teaching, where students at each institution — some 550 miles apart — attend at the same time and are linked via videoconferencing.

The courses also are taught in an active-learning format, which incorporates peer-led team learning, an approach not often found in math instruction.

“Mathematics is mostly seen as a sport of individuals, but we want students to also work in groups and collaborate to solve problems,” Dragovic said. “Industry employers want problem solvers.”

Katelyn Clark, a mathematics senior at UT Dallas who is taking the abstract algebra course, said she at first thought having two instructors would be confusing.

“I was wrong. My professors have their own teaching styles that complement each other very well,” she said. “Whereas one of my professors focuses on helping us understand the theory, the other solidifies it with examples. Abstract Algebra 2 can be a difficult class; however, this combination of instruction makes it more understandable.”

Student assignments that outline the concepts to be covered in the group work are posted a week in advance.

“I love this approach because I gain a better understanding of the topics and feel adequately prepared to work with others,” Clark said. “In the first assignment, everyone was able to contribute, finish all of the questions and help each other understand the minor things we could not figure out individually.”  

Dr. Carlos Arreche teaches Abstract Algebra 2 at UT Dallas. The course uses synchronous teaching in which students at UT Dallas and UT Rio Grande Valley learn together via videoconferencing. 

Clark, who plans to pursue her PhD in mathematics and teach at the university level, also noted she hopes to one day incorporate some the class’ concepts into her own teaching.

Another component of IMPacT involves leveraging UT Dallas’ ties with companies and government agencies in North Texas to identify opportunities for students of both universities to get involved in industry-related research.

“Mathematics is a vibrant profession, with many diverse opportunities, but that knowledge has not reached the wider community, even among university students, so we want to showcase the many career possibilities,” Dragovic said.

Professionals from local industries who serve on the external advisory board for UT Dallas’ mathematical sciences department will play a role in broadening the training of students, Dragovic said.

“We intend to use these established relationships to help connect students from both campuses with professional experience for nonacademic settings,” he said.

In addition, UT Dallas will offer students from both universities summer boot camps to enhance problem-solving and communication skills, cultivate research aptitude and assist in navigating the application process to a PhD program.

“We have built this joint infrastructure between two geographically distant universities with distinct student populations and resources, and we hope it will serve as a national model,” Dragovic said.

Other UT Dallas faculty members involved in IMPacT include: Dr. Swati Biswas, Dr. Pankaj Choudhary, Dr. Susan Minkoff, Dr. Viswanath Ramakrishna and Dr. John Zweck, all professors of mathematical sciences; and Dr. Juan González, dean of graduate education. Other UTRGV math faculty involved are Dr. Baofeng Feng and Dr. Cristina Villalobos.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].