A Departmental Effort to Meet Data-Driven Demands

Over the last decade, the Department of Mathematics at the College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics has created accessible, innovative programs that stay abreast of rapidly evolving fields.

Pictured, from left, are Math/CCAM Faculty Dr. Dwight Wynne, Dr. Bogdan Suceavă, Ms. Isabel Serrano (UC Berkeley), Dr. Sam Behseta, Dr. Kristin Kurianski, Dr. Nicholas Brubaker, Dr. Armando Martinez-Cruz, and Dr. Jessica Jaynes.

It’s an interesting statistic to note: In recent years, the number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)-related bachelor’s degrees conferred by colleges and universities in Orange County increased, apparently less affected by the pandemic than those in non-STEM majors. Yet, the number of STEM-related graduate degrees declined by nearly 9 percent.

The only STEM field to experience an increase in the number of graduate degrees conferred was mathematics and statistics, which saw 66 more degrees in 2020 than in 2019. This reflects a longer-term trend. From 2010 to 2020, the number of combined undergraduate and graduate mathematics and statistics degrees grew by 215 percent, more than any other field.

“As society and the economy get increasingly more technologically and data-oriented, the need for people with advanced quantitative skills increases,” says Alfonso Agnew, Professor and Chair of the Department of Mathematics at the College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics (NSM). “Careers in these areas offer high salaries and good job security, and that won’t change anytime soon. As a result, the demand for programs like ours is high.”

Over the last decade, the department has made considerable efforts to respond to this demand by creating accessible, innovative programs that stay abreast of these rapidly evolving fields.

The department’s Master of Science in Statistics program is taught entirely in hybrid mode so that students can complete the degree by participating fully in person or online. Similarly, plans for converting the MS in Applied Mathematics and Master of Arts in Teaching Mathematics programs are in the works.

“We recognize and act on emerging trends in business, industry, and government,” Agnew says. “For example, the explosion in the use of smart devices that are chip-based and connected to the internet has resulted in an even greater explosion in data available for harvest and analysis. There is far more data available than people and computers to put it to good use. This is squarely where statistics, computation, and data science come into play.”

All of the college’s mathematics and statistics programs, from first-year undergraduate through graduate, are continuously retooled to reflect an emphasis in these areas.

“Faculty stay on the cutting-edge of these developments and are excited to bring the students with them through curriculum innovation and extracurricular research experiences,” Agnew says.

A Dynamic and Forward-Thinking Department

The college offers undergraduate degree programs across all major areas of mathematics: math education, pure mathematics, applied mathematics, statistics, and actuarial science. It also offers master’s programs in statistics, applied mathematics, and teaching mathematics.

“The success we are now experiencing has been decades in the making,” Agnew says. “Undergraduate research and other extracurricular activities were novel and rare in the 1990s when I was a student. Research, in particular, was strictly the domain of the Ph.D. Our department’s leaders in the ’90s and beyond decided to prioritize the goal of making Cal State Fullerton’s Department of Mathematics a dynamic and forward-thinking department where faculty would meet the students where they were at and involve them in world-class experiences.”

Additionally, Agnew says Cal State Fullerton students are regularly and proudly overrepresented at regional and national professional meetings, and the department fields a well-prepared team for the annual national Putnam Mathematics Exam Competition.

Students have regular access to research seminars and a colloquium series. The department offers a Math Circle program, in which faculty and CSUF students work together to perform outreach activities for gifted middle and high school students. Students co-author research papers and software programs, and graduate students work on industry-sponsored, real-world projects for their capstone courses, which also provide excellent industry networking opportunities.

“It requires an especially motivated and passionate faculty to find or create these opportunities, curate them over time, mentor the students that participate, and provide the advising and nurturing that many of our inexperienced or first-generation college students need to be successful,” Agnew says.

Faculty members’ connections in industry and academia are also essential to ensuring the department’s programs can best prepare students to meet current and future challenges.

These links ensure students have opportunities to attend networking events connecting students with alumni and industry sponsors, as well as to participate in seminars and in-house consulting programs like those offered by the Center for Computational and Applied Mathematics (CCAM).

A Center for Interdisciplinary Computational Research

CCAM also plays an integral role in promoting computing and data science across the campus.

The Center launched seven years ago with a primary mission of creating a collaborative space for NSM mathematicians and scientists to collectively move their interdisciplinary research agendas forward. CCAM secured the first high-performance computing cluster (HPC) for the college, named after German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler.

The Kepler HPC quickly became the main computing resource for faculty across nearly every department in the college whose work was highly computational. At the same time, computation began to play a significantly more important role in scientific endeavors, says Sam Behseta, professor of mathematics and director of CCAM.

“This phenomenon was predominantly due to two paradigm-shifting occurrences. The first was artificial intelligence (AI)-based technology and its contributions to the design of measuring devices. This gave rise to the Big Data revolution, resulting in the fast generation of large volumes of more accurate data,” Behseta says. “The second was statistical and machine learning techniques, which made possible a far more insightful unraveling of the information embedded in data.”

Over time, these occurrences necessitated the college’s hiring of more mathematicians and science faculty whose work had a sharp computational tangent. The demand for high-performance computing machinery in the college began to grow significantly. In 2021, Behseta; Andrew Petit, Associate Professor of Physical and Theoretical Chemistry; and Willie Peng, Assistant Vice President for Information Technology/Infrastructure Service, wrote an Army grant and secured a brand-new, cutting-edge HPC for the Center, named after British mathematician and logician Alan Turing.

“I would argue Turing is a kind of machine you see floating about in the Ivy and R1 institutions of learning, aiding their researcher communities with pushing the edges of science forward,” Behseta says.

2021 became a pivotal year for CCAM’s funding.

“Our department, led by the visionary Al Agnew, allocated significant philanthropic support to the Center, and student-centric grants such as the new National Science Foundation-sponsored data science program began to see the light,” Behseta says.

Cal State Fullerton students’ access to research opportunities and resources within CCAM are becoming increasingly important as data-intensive studies have led to another new paradigm in scientific research. Large-scale experiments, along with routine use of digital sensors and intensive computer simulations, have created a data deluge, imposing new challenges on scientists and practitioners to process and analyze a large amount of data for information extraction, new discovery, and decision-making.

“Tackling these emerging challenges requires a new generation of data scientists with interdisciplinary skills and a strong background in mathematics, statistics, and computer science. These scientists must also be able to understand and form scientific questions, choose proper data analysis methods, and communicate results in a meaningful way,” Behseta says.

A Mathematics Program That’s Making a Difference

Agnew says he often worries about the amount of mathematical talent the region and the country have lost – and are losing – because of lack of access and perception. This has real-world consequences for the economy, national defense, and society. Cal State Fullerton faculty and leaders are continually working to overcome these challenges.

“Many of the faculty, myself included, have first-hand experience with the challenges that are involved in achieving upward social mobility, so we can relate and be proactive in our faculty role,” Agnew says. “Our graduate profile has been increasingly looking more like our regional community, and that is a strong indication that we are carrying out our university mission.”

Mathematics education faculty have been awarded millions of dollars in grants over the years to stay at the cutting-edge of research on pedagogy and issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. They share their knowledge with the whole department through professional development activities and scholarly interactions with faculty in other areas of mathematics.

“In this way, we are continually improving our skill at connecting with our entire student population at CSUF,” Agnew says.

The NSM Department of Mathematics was recently honored with the “Mathematics Programs That Make a Difference” award from the American Mathematical Society. The award was established in 2005 to recognize programs that have achieved documentable success in bringing more people from underrepresented backgrounds into the pipeline, starting at the undergraduate level and leading to advanced degrees in mathematics and professional success.

“We are one of 17 departments among thousands that have been recognized with this honor, to date,” Agnew says. “It is a resounding validation of a decades-long effort to bring high-impact research practices to CSUF. The result is a more experienced, engaged, confident, and competitive math graduate.”

Statistics Alumni Tout Master’s Program Benefits

A “businesswoman at heart” and a successful store manager for more than 13 years, Roxxanne Hobart (MS ’19) wanted to start making more data-driven business decisions. She already had an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a love for solving problems of all kinds,
so enrolling in the Master of Science Degree in Statistics Program at Cal State Fullerton’s College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics was the perfect next step.

“The program brought my problem-solving abilities and career to the next level. Now I am in the corporate office solving business problems with the latest analytics tools and methods for over 3,000 stores,” says Hobart, a data scientist at Chipotle, Inc.

Despite coming into Cal State Fullerton’s graduate statistics program with “an unusual background that did not contain much technical training,” Aaron Jones (MS ’18), a data scientist for Starbucks, says he excelled because of the comprehensive curriculum and the enthusiasm of the faculty.

“The highlights of my tenure at CSUF were the in-depth conversations I had with faculty, who were so generous with their time outside of the classroom. We discussed all things statistics, from philosophy to consulting to methodology to research,” Jones says. “CSUF gave me a statistical foundation from which I could continue to grow, learn, and excel as a problem solver in any professional setting.”

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