Back Story: Mathematics Awareness Month 2013

March 21, 2013


Mathematics Awareness Month is held each April to raise awareness of the important role mathematics plays in our lives. Victor Donnay, a professor of mathematics at Bryn Mawr College, is chair of the advisory committee that organized this year's event. Bryn Mawr sustainability intern Lee McClenon interviewed Donnay for SIAM News; an edited transcript of the interview follows.

This year's theme is the Mathematics of Sustainability. What does this mean?
The earth provides us with an astonishing variety of resources. For humanity to flourish, we must balance our human needs, such as those for energy, clean air, fresh water, and adequate food, with the availability of these resources. And we must do so while operating within the complex constraints imposed by the laws of nature and the perhaps equally complex "laws" of human behavior. So sustainability involves environmental, social, and economic aspects, all of which are interconnected. Mathematics contributes in many important ways to understanding and addressing the challenges of sustainability. The poster for Math Awareness Month aims to paint a picture of the balancing act of sustainability. An interactive version on the website (www.mathaware.org) describes some ways in which the images connect to math, sustainability, and each other. We invite visitors to submit their own interpretations via the website blog.

Where did you look to find writers for the essays posted on the Math Awareness Month website?
One of the challenges faced by our committee (Thomas Pfaff, Ithaca College; Catherine Roberts, Holy Cross College; Mary Lou Zeeman, Bowdoin College; and me) is that sustainability is such a broad topic---how does one cover it all? In recruiting authors for the essays, we were aiming to get a wide array of perspectives. Certainly we wanted mathematicians and scientists doing research in areas of sustainability, but we also looked for places where practitioners have used math to solve sustainability problems. One example is the essay from the founding director of sustainability for Philadelphia, who developed a comprehensive green plan for the city. He writes about the role of math in developing an urban planning project. We also have an essay from a LEED architect on how designers use mathematics to create environmentally friendly and economically efficient buildings. Another topic people may not automatically associate with math is international development. We have an essay describing how math is used in the United Nations "Sustainable Energy for All" project, which aims to improve the quality of life in developing countries by providing green energy solutions to meet pressing local needs. Both math and sustainability are such broad, important topics that they can be found in many projects!

Last year Bryn Mawr College was awarded the American Mathematical Society annual award for Exemplary Achievement in a Mathematics Department. Congratulations! What is Bryn Mawr doing for Math Awareness Month this year?
We always do math contests, such as collecting the digits of pi or guessing the number of M&Ms in a big jar. We show movies that have math-related themes. We usually do a hands-on workshop for students; last year we did pencil sculptures. Our big event is the Math Awareness Month keynote speaker. This year we are excited to have David Kung from St. Mary's College, the author of one of the Math Awareness Month essays. He will be talking about math and social justice.

Do you have some new components for this year's Math Awareness Month?

When we launched the poster at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in January, people asked us to recommend speakers for their institutions' activities. In response, we are creating a speakers bureau so that colleges, universities, and even schools and community groups that would like to organize a talk about math and sustainability can find speakers. Anyone interested in being part of the speakers bureau is encouraged to register on the website. And, of course, in keeping with our theme of sustainability, we encourage groups to invite speakers from their local area rather than flying someone in. Under the motto "Sustainability Counts!" we are collecting teaching materials that connect math and sustainability so that teachers and faculty can engage their students in a sustainability-themed math lesson during Math Awareness Month.

What inspired you to create these new features?

With the world facing such a wide range of sustainability challenges, we wanted to take advantage of this high-profile venue to get the message out that mathematics has an important role to play in sustainability and to encourage all segments of the mathematics community---researchers, teachers, and students---to get involved in seeking solutions. We hope that readers who care about this issue will organize local events---at their institutions, perhaps jointly with schools or community groups, or in partnership with sustainability practitioners. I have found that having a title made it easier for me to take initiative and reach out to people, so I hereby deputize each reader as the chair of a local Math Awareness Month organizing committee. We urge all to share their stories on the Activities section of the website so that others can be inspired by their efforts!

To see the poster, the essays, more information on the speakers bureau, and other features of Math Awareness Month, visit www.mathaware.org.


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