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Undergrad researchers carve mathematics out of wood for summer project

It takes just 10 cuts to turn a rectangular block of wood into a working set of pliers. Describing how that works mathematically turned out to be the real challenge for five JMU students who formed an interdisciplinary undergraduate research team this summer.

The team consisted of two engineering majors, juniors Michael Caple and Lisha White; and three math majors, junior Santiago Morales-Diaz, and seniors Traymon Beavers and Zeke Mihelcic. Each member of the team earned $4,000 stipends for their six weeks of work on the project, a program designed to provide research experience for undergraduates from underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

For the past seven summers, the program—Mentoring Minorities Matters, or M-Cubed—was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, the Mathematical Association of America and the National Security Agency. When the grant was not funded this year, JMU's College of Science and Mathematics and the College of Integrated Science and Engineering filled the void.

"The M-Cubed program has been very successful over the last several years.  It has created opportunities for students to dive into problems and discover solutions," said Dr. David Brakke, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics.  "We want to expand the opportunities for our students to work together and to develop skills and capacities.  Our efforts like M-Cubed have directly led to student persistence and success."

During a presentation of their research July 23 to President Jonathan Alger and Provost Jerry Benson, the team said one of the most interesting findings was how different forms of math, such as geometry, linear algebra and calculus, can complement each other to describe a process like the mechanics of the pliers. To complete the project, the students had to use computer modeling and also had to print prototypes of the pliers with 3-D printers.

Dr. Anthony Tongen, a professor of mathematics and statistics who started the M-Cubed program, said the group will be writing a paper about their research and submitting it for publication in a scientific journal.

Tongen said he hopes to come up with more stable external funding to continue and expand the program.

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Published July 28, 2014