CSUN Brings Mathematics Research to Local Community Colleges

CSUN mathematics professor Helena Noronha sits in her office. She is heading the Research Experience in Community Colleges project. Photo by Luis Garcia.

CSUN mathematics professor Helena Noronha sits in her office. She is heading the Research Experience in Community Colleges project. Photo by Luis Garcia.

For many students, community college is an economical first step on their way to getting a bachelor’s degree. California State University, Northridge is now giving those students interested in studying mathematics a leg up when it comes to doing research before they even step foot on a four-year college campus.

Through a $434,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant awarded to CSUN math professor Helena Noronha in September, Pierce Community College and Mission College instructors and students will perform research alongside CSUN math professors over the next three years.

The project, titled Research Experience in Community Colleges, or RE-C^2, is one of the first mathematic research opportunities for community colleges in the nation. It is aimed at attracting more students to Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, a growing demand in the United States.

California has one of the largest community college student populations in the country, with more than 50 percent of CSU students attending a community college first.

Noronha explained that with a growing community college population, it is important for CSUN to focus on grooming future university students for research in graduate STEM fields.

“We need to pay attention to this population because they are being overlooked,” she said. “If [universities] start engaging them earlier, we can attract more students to higher education. Extending [mathematical research] to community colleges is a way to tell [students and faculty] what higher-level mathematics is like.”

Werner Horn, a CSUN mathematics professor and collaborator on the project, said having students involved in mathematical research would create a focused goal for them if they choose to transfer and become mathematicians.

“A lot of our math majors come from community colleges,” Horn said. “If we can get them involved in research a year before they transfer, they will have a much better idea of what is expected of them as a [mathematics] student, [and] it gets them more vested in the subject.”

Horn said that exposing community college students to mathematical research would give them a chance to understand the opportunities available if they choose to become mathematicians.

“Do you know what a mathematician does?” he laughed. “Very few people know what we are doing. A lot of beginning math students only have a vague idea of what it means to be a mathematician. They think the only career choice is teaching. They have no idea there are other choices out there.”

Students going into STEM graduate programs are more successful if they have had undergraduate research experience, Noronha said.

“Now a days, it is almost a must for any undergraduate applying for a graduate mathematics program to have done research before,” she said. “There are studies that show that students who find the basics of research as undergraduates turn out to be some of the best students in graduate school.”

Having CSUN professors partner with community college teams is also beneficial for the connections between faculty members.    

“I see an outcome of a better relationship among the faculty, because CSUN faculty will better understand how to approach community college students and faculty,” Noronha said.

Horn agreed that the program could bridge the gap between community colleges and CSUs.

“I have taught transfer students. I know what they know,” he said. “It could get the faculty and students involved at community colleges more involved. This will be a model in enhancing students and their work before transferring.”

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