The Mathlab at Columbia University

December 4, 2009

Students Helping Students: Adrian Haimovich, Boris Grinshpun, and Braxton Osting are part of a core group of volunteers who staff the Mathlab, a much visited help room run by the SIAM student chapter at Columbia University.
The old adage "see one, do one, teach one" is typically associated with the study of medicine, but at Columbia University, students in the Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics are putting it into practice for math. Since 2008, Columbia University's SIAM Chapter has hosted a help room, dubbed the Mathlab, to assist students with questions from their classes, homework, and even research projects. The room is staffed by a devoted core set of volunteers, both graduate and undergraduate students. To date, Mathlab volunteers have answered questions about tools from machine learning, analysis, optimization, and linear algebra applied to fields as diverse as economics, physics, political science, and biomedical engineering.

The help room was introduced primarily as a resource for MATLAB users, and many in the Columbia community attribute their proficiency in MATLAB to it. In the words of one attendee, "I knew nothing about programming in MATLAB and I needed help with a class that relied heavily on it. With the help of the Mathlab, I went from knowing nothing to having a fundamental understanding of how to program in MATLAB." To gain momentum, the CU SIAM Chapter held an event this spring to "train the trainers"; an invited speaker from MathWorks presented new and more advanced features of MATLAB.

In the fall of 2009, participating students decided to broaden the scope of Mathlab. It now addresses questions from classes in the applied math program, and supports Mathematica programming. The primary motivation for the expansion was community need. "The mathematics department has a help room for undergraduate classes," says Boris Grinshpun, president of the CU SIAM Chapter, "and it seemed logical for the CU SIAM Chapter to fill the gap in the applied math program." For the future, the CU SIAM board envisions more teaching assistants holding their office hours during the Mathlab hours, creating a larger community in which senior students help younger students. Since the beginning of the fall semester, attendance in the help room has in-creased to the point that the tutors often find themselves hard pressed to make it through all the questions.

"Nobody knows how to help students better than the students do," said Irving Herman, chair of Columbia's Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics. "The best thing we can do as faculty is to give the students great resources and then let them do their thing."-Adrian Haimovich, Columbia University.

More information about the CU SIAM Chapter can be found at

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