SIAM News Blog

When the ‘S’ in SIAM Stands for Students

By Irene Fonseca

SIAM’s year-round efforts involve lobbying governments for greater research funding for our members and organizing conferences to foster stronger ties between academia and industry, but behind it all is a part of our mission just as vital: cultivating the next generation of scientific and industrial researchers. This is why SIAM constantly advocates for better STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education, continues to expand its student chapter network, and just increased the amount of funding available to send students to SIAM conferences worldwide.

Improving STEM education is a priority for countries around the world, but nowhere is it more pressing than in the United States, where a considerably lower proportion of college students go into STEM fields. Back in 2012, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) published a report calling for one million additional college graduates with STEM degrees. Fewer than 40 percent of students who enter college planning to major in a STEM field actually finish such a degree, the authors found. The report served as a “wake-up call” for the STEM teaching community, American Mathematical Society Past President Eric Friedlander wrote at the time, encouraging SIAM and several other professional societies to jointly confront the challenge set forth in the PCAST report.

This past July, SIAM as well as the Mathematical Association of America (MAA), the American Statistical Association (ASA), and the American Mathematical Society (AMS) — with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) — held a 3-day conference as part of the INGenIOuS Project, which stands for “INvesting in the next Generation through Innovative and Outstanding Strategies.” This collaboration seeks to identify and encourage the adoption of effective practices to improve student recruitment, retention, degree completion, and job placement so as to keep the pipeline of professional mathematicians and statisticians pumping smoothly. Many of these practices — certainly applicable to other countries looking to revamp STEM education — are outlined in a series of white papers available on the INGenIOuS website, covering everything from “Technologies and MOOCs” to “Internships.”

As a truly international society for industrial and applied mathematics and computer science, SIAM continues to actively nurture students outside the United States as well, primarily through its growing network of student chapters. In fact, SIAM inaugurated its 100th chapter — the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom — just last year under my predecessor Nick Trefethen’s presidency. Since then, SIAM has grown to 116 chapters, 26 of those outside the United States. As we speak, a new chapter is being set up at the Universidade Nova in Lisbon, Portugal. Yet with only five chapters in fast-growing Asia, and two each in the Middle East and Latin America, the potential for growth in student membership is hard to overstate.

Another area where SIAM is investing heavily is its student travel award program, which this year will fund over 220 students at the beginning of their careers to travel to SIAM conferences around the world and play a more active role in society.  When it was first launched several years ago, the program relied primarily on National Science Foundation grants and donations of royalties by generous SIAM book authors, but quickly grew to include donations from SIAM’s general members (via a checkbox on the membership renewal form) and an initial $100,000 allocation by the SIAM Board of Trustees in 2011 under the initiative of SIAM Past President Nick Trefethen. At its July 2013 meeting, the Board elected to double this figure to $200,000 per year, starting in 2014, a decision I believe speaks to SIAM’s deep commitment to its student members.

With demand for STEM jobs (and STEM competencies more generally) growing faster in the last few decades than the overall job market, SIAM plays and will continue to play a key role in meeting that demand.

Irene Fonseca is the Mellon College of Science Professor of Mathematics at Carnegie Mellon University. She is the current president of SIAM.

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