David Austin is pictured downtown Grand Rapids

Math Making a Difference

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As he considered the partnerships he needed to develop for this class, Austin also pondered his sales pitch.

A mathematician who talks about his discipline in almost poetic terms, Austin also is keenly aware that the public perception of math can skew to the negative side. People are often intimidated by math, he said. He was prepared to sell its virtues.

Much to his delight at that first meeting with the Grand Rapids leaders, he quickly realized that wouldn’t be necessary.

“They told me, ‘We’ve been waiting for something like this for a long time,’” Austin said. 

As he met with more potential partners in the business, nonprofit and government communities, he found the same positive reaction.

“There was almost this thirst for our students who have mathematical skills,” Austin said. “They recognized they have issues that can only be addressed with mathematics. There is a need in the community now for people with mathematical skills.”

Headshot of Ethan Boelkins

Ethan Boelkins ’20 took the applied mathematics capstone class and now works for the City of Grand Rapids as a data reporting specialist.

Headshot of Becky Jo Glover

Becky Jo Glover, City of Grand Rapids chief customer service and innovation officer

Math: Beauty, function and boundless career opportunities

If that fateful meeting about three years ago had called for a sales pitch on math, though, Austin would have been the right person to do it.

A noted scholar and instructor, Austin was a recipient of the Mathematical Association of America’s 2021 Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award for teaching excellence and demonstration of influence outside of an educator’s institution.

Austin’s love for the theory of mathematics is deep. He uses terms like “aesthetically pleasing” to describe a mathematical discovery.

Still, he and his colleagues saw a need to evolve the department’s mathematics curriculum from one that was primarily theory-based to one that incorporated applied mathematics principles. That approach has helped to more fully prepare students for a wide variety of career options, he said.

As much as he loves theory, he is equally passionate about extolling the benefits of the practical side of mathematics.

“The amazing thing about mathematics is that we can come up with ideas in our imagination because we’re curious about them, and then we can use them to solve problems in the real world,” Austin said. “It’s not a firm line that divides applied mathematics from theoretical. Applied mathematics is an emphasis that develops students’ problem-solving skills so when they graduate they can assume a career that puts mathematical training to use.” 

Working with the data that is pervasive in today’s world is one fulfilling career option, Austin said. But he quickly ticks off other opportunities for aspiring mathematicians.

Films by Pixar Animation Studios require extensive mathematics, he said, noting a number of published papers by mathematicians on the techniques they create to make animations better. Austin noted that, for instance, the process of getting Sulley’s fur to move in “Monsters, Inc.” requires mathematics.

One of the biggest employers of mathematicians is the National Security Agency, he said. “People have discovered that prime numbers give you a way of encrypting information in a powerful way,” Austin said. Those encryption skills are also in demand at businesses such as credit card companies and large retailers.

In health care, mathematicians can look at a patient’s information, such as height, weight, age and other factors, and assess the risk of disease, Austin said.

Students with theoretical mathematics backgrounds were already primed for successful careers, Austin said. Incorporating applied mathematics has made that training even more intentional.

Data helping people

The training that students are receiving from the partnership with the City of Grand Rapids has multiple layers, Austin said. Students are gaining valuable problem-solving experience, but the impact is even farther reaching.

They also are seeing how their work with data impacts community service and social justice, Austin said.

The first project with the City of Grand Rapids involved the students analyzing demographic information and ultimately writing software that pulled data from the Census Bureau and other sources to help the city more precisely target housing assistance, Austin said.

Austin’s 2021 class was charged with studying data on how residents communicate with the city. Students searched for trends and other insight, such as which neighborhood residents are more likely to appear in person with concerns, rather than call or communicate online.

City officials plan to use that information to create a better picture on how to allocate resources for contacts with residents, said Becky Jo Glover, chief customer service and innovation officer. Glover also said seeing trends can help the city target messaging to encourage residents who go through the hardship of traveling to City Hall for a task like paying a bill to trust a remote process.

Glover said the students in Austin’s class are providing a crucial resource by sharing analytical insights and visualizations that benefit city residents. The students’ work shows not just a snapshot in time but can also help with forecasting.

“I probably scared David, I was so excited when he approached us,” Glover said. “And the work they have done has not disappointed us. This has been one of the best experiences of my entire public service career.”

Noting “data is a big beast,” Glover said the students’ work helps both at a big-picture level and also a granular one. And each data point represents a person and a possible issue that needs to be addressed.

Besides being impressed with the caliber of students from Grand Valley, Glover also is glad to see the experience has helped students see the possibilities in working for the public sector.

One of those students is Ethan Boelkins ’20, who is now a data reporting specialist for the city. He said he works with internal and external data sources to put information in terms that are usable both for city officials as well as public-facing platforms.

He was part of Austin’s capstone class working with the city, and while he went into the work with an open mind, Boelkins said he wasn’t sure he would pursue a career involving applied mathematics. 

But Boelkins said once he saw how valuable the analysis was to the city, he was inspired to see what future opportunities there might be for him in a setting where his expertise could make a difference. He started with an internship and worked into other roles.

“Looking at the world now and as the pandemic changes a lot of things, data is more in demand as ever, and people who can work with data and communities are more important than ever,” Boelkins said. “Where am I going to see the impact of the work I’m doing? That has always been obvious with the work I have done with the city; it comes right from the city residents.”

Austin said he is gratified that students are having these kinds of revelations through the applied mathematics community partnerships.

“I hear from students: ‘I had no idea you could use a math degree in this way.’ This has broadened the perceptions about what mathematicians could do,” he said.

Artistic portrait of David Austin with mathematical writing overlayed

David Austin forged a partnership with the City of Grand Rapids to provide an opportunity for applied mathematics students to work on real-world projects.