At Cal State Fullerton’s Department of Mathematics, numbers, patterns, and research reign supreme – but so do connection and a beautiful devotion to exploration and learning.
The Department of Mathematics impacts an extraordinary number of students each semester. That number soared from an average of 8,000 students per semester to a staggering 11,000 students in fall 2023.
“No other department can claim that at CSUF, and very few – if any – in the whole CSU can make that claim,” says Al Agnew, department chair and professor of mathematics. Drawing an apt comparison, he notes that the department could be likened to a “Ferrari bus: large but aerodynamic and high-tech.”
College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics Dean Marie Johnson says this reach is one of the most significant aspects of the department.
“They teach all the students, from those who struggle to those who excel,” Dean Johnson says. “Math is the whole package. Our instructors teach future elementary, middle school, high school, and collegiate teachers; incoming CSUF freshmen; masters students; people who hate math; people who want to be mathematicians – every student who comes through CSUF. We reach the whole spectrum, which means our instructors face unique challenges – and experience even greater rewards.”
The CSUF Department of Mathematics has excelled, standing out as one of the strongest – if not the strongest – math department in the whole of CSU, receiving competitive grants and laudable recognition while making groundbreaking progress in the field and championing meaningful initiatives and programs.
Building Bridges: Programs That Reinforce Community and Excellence
Approaching its 35th anniversary, Project MISS: Mathematics Intensive Summer Session seeks to amplify the math skills of college-bound high school students, particularly girls, and support their achievement in college preparatory coursework. Throughout the course’s four-week duration, students engage in six hours of daily math instruction from Monday to Friday. All essentials – including meals, books, and materials – are provided to the students, and successful participants receive a free graphing calculator.
The overarching goal of Project MISS is to encourage more female students to pursue careers in natural sciences, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The program has a longstanding partnership with local high schools and especially targets students who may be the first in their family to attend college.
Agnew believes the program has created a significant culture shift. “Programs like this rarely get funded for more than five years, so it’s clearly something special,” Agnew says.
Thousands of high school students have successfully completed the Project MISS program since its launch in 1990.
Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, Project META: Mathematics Equity Through Teaching Actively addresses equity gaps by supporting ongoing professional development for faculty, particularly in the math department. Given the department’s vast size – with more than 100 teaching faculty, including professors, adjuncts, and teaching assistants – Agnew notes that it’s essential to support faculty and staff development. Project META helps the department ensure faculty stay on the cutting edge of modern active learning and inclusive pedagogy practices. It helps foster a supportive environment that encourages department educators to self-reflect and set goals to continue their progression.
Transitioning Math Majors Into Teaching (TMMT)
Aimed at undergraduates, TMMT offers incentives for math majors to transition into middle and secondary school teaching roles and provides innovative, mentored learning experiences often reserved for graduate students, including internships, tutoring opportunities, and classroom visits.
“Southern California has a pressing need for exceptional math teachers at these levels,” says Agnew. “Programs like these – and our credential program – make CSUF math department the largest and most respected provider of middle and high school math teachers in the region.”
Backed by a $1.2 million grant from NSF, TMMT aims to recruit math majors to teach in local schools with a high percentage of low-income students. Participants will receive a yearly $10,000 scholarship for the three years they participate in the project, and special effort will be made to recruit students who mirror CSUF and surrounding school districts’ populations. The program will also offer enrichment experiences for participants even after they transition into teaching roles. In this way, the project – set to begin in January 2024 – will boost the number of diverse mathematics majors who become secondary math teachers and persist in the profession.
Advancing the Field: The Data Science Revolution
Driven by innovators like Sam Behseta, professor of mathematics and director of the Center for Computational and Applied Mathematics, the department has upheld its commitment to remaining at the forefront of technological and mathematical advancements.
Center for Computational and Applied Mathematics
The Center for Computational and Applied Mathematics serves as a nexus of advanced interdisciplinary research and collaboration. It fosters joint ventures among faculty, students, and researchers; provides active learning opportunities and research training to students; and conceptualizes products that bridge research and education. CCAM is home to innovative, prolific research and projects, including CSUF’s supercomputers. The introduction of CSUF’s second supercomputer, named Turing, marks an era of elevated computational capacities. Part of CCAM, this high-performance computing cluster will be crucial to expanding current research efforts and meeting the demands of modern research.
Supported by a nearly $1.3 million California Education Learning Lab grant, Project PIPE-LINE (Programs for Institutional Pathway Engagement — acceLerating INfrastructure and Education) aims to help dissolve inequities in data science education and build strong connections with area community colleges to create a data science “pipeline” to CSUF, while advancing learning opportunities in the subject.
Targeting the inclusion of underrepresented students in STEM, project plans include offering data science courses across CSUF and partnering institutions to expand access to high-quality data science education, as well as establishing data science major and minor programs at CSUF. Faculty across institutions and disciplines will be trained in innovative ways to teach data science and will build a community of data science educators and learners through workshops, peer-to-peer collaborations, and other opportunities.
California Data Science Experience Transformation Program
The California Data Science Experience Transformation Program is an interdisciplinary initiative to inspire diverse STEM majors to pursue careers in data science. The program is backed by a $1.5 million NSF grant provided to CSUF in partnership with University of California, Irvine, and Cypress Community College. By fostering problem-solving skills and deep analytical thinking, this program intends to mold future leaders in data science, establishing a vibrant data-science community at CSUF and broadening horizons for students.
“Behseta – alongside Jessica Jaynes, associate professor of mathematics and lead for Project PIPE-LINE – is pioneering the evolution of data science within NSM and beyond,” says Agnew. “CCAM, Turing, and Project PIPE-LINE all reflect our commitment to embracing cutting-edge methodologies and technologies, with a keen emphasis on the rapidly growing realm of data science.”
Elevating Education: Exceptional Instructors and Distinctions
In 2022, Behseta earned the commendable achievement of being honored with the 2022 CSUF Outstanding Professor Award. The campuswide award recognizes the top faculty member universitywide, celebrating the apex of faculty excellence.
“That’s a rare accomplishment,” says Agnew. “It’s indicative of the extremely high level of talent and dedication that’s inherent to math faculty.”
L. Donald Shields Excellence in Scholarship and Creativity Award
Demonstrating the department’s commitment to scholarly activity, Bogdan Suceavă, professor of mathematics, received the coveted L. Donald Shields Excellence in Scholarship and Creativity Award in 2023. This distinction, highly respected by faculty, recognizes impactful research contributions.
Dean Johnson says, “Bogdan’s research, all of it, involves students, so earning that award is also a testament to his work with students. He’s exceptional, and he’s representative of many NSM faculty.”
Additionally, under Suceavă’s guidance, the department has been hosting the Fullerton Math Circle for over a decade. The program operates on Saturdays, providing mathematical training and competition opportunities to local middle and high school students. Undergraduate math education majors can help facilitate or even lead sessions, gaining essential experience.
American Mathematical Society’s Mathematics Programs That Make A Difference
In another significant achievement, the American Mathematical Society – the premier professional math organization in the country – named the department as recipient of the 2022 award for Mathematics Programs That Make a Difference. The national level award has only been bestowed on roughly 20 organizations out of thousands of candidates, making it an astounding honor for the department, campus, and whole CSU.
Agnew says, “I think these accolades say a lot about our department’s hiring practices and the opportunities available to local students to work with high-caliber mathematicians at a more accessible price point.”
Mathematics as Art: Universal Beauty
Agnew and his colleagues have an inspiring understanding of mathematics, and this vision is something that Agnew wishes was shared with learners from a young age.
“Pure mathematics is both a science and an art,” Agnew says. “It has incredibly beautiful and compelling ideas and structures, and it underlies everything around us. It is, by nature, universal. Once you understand this, it’s a deeply transformational experience that gives you a similar expansion of the mind that art does: you never look at things quite the same afterward.”
Before his time as chair and long-standing faculty member, Agnew was once a student of CSUF’s Department of Mathematics, graduating in 1994 with a double major in math and physics. His mentor, Stephen Goode, emeritus professor of mathematics, left an indelible impact on Agnew, as did other excellent faculty in the department.
“I’ve been the beneficiary of this department and the whole CSU system in general, and I am forever grateful,” Agnew says. “Serving as department chair allows me to give back. My colleagues, whom I respect a great deal, nominated me for the position and voted me in. I can only hope that I’ve lived up to the honor.”
For decades, Cal State Fullerton’s math department has been a leader in providing robust teacher training and preparation, life-altering extracurricular activities like undergraduate research, and success in the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition®. Agnew notes that this is rare in comparable universities, praising the department’s ability to always “surf the cutting edge.”
“I have tremendous pride in what the faculty and students accomplish here,” Agnew says. “We’ve cultivated a culture that prioritizes student accessibility, student success, and opportunities for distinguished achievement. We make real, tangible differences in people’s lives by helping them realize their full potential and comprehend the beauty and power of mathematics.”