Wofford College will be represented at the largest annual meeting of mathematicians in the world when Dr. Rachel Grotheer and Chase Creamer ’23 present at the Joint Mathematics Meetings April 6-9. The conference will be virtual.

Grotheer, assistant professor of mathematics, is accustomed to seeing people grimace and hearing them moan when she mentions that she teaches calculus. She recognizes the subject can be difficult for many people and that students aren’t always exposed to how calculus is applicable in the real world.

“We want to take a complicated problem and make it solvable,” says Grotheer, who is co-organizing two special paper sessions at the meetings, including one on tensor modeling and optimization.

Grotheer also is co-organizing a session on engaging students through modeling hands-on projects and innovative exploratory approaches, where she will discuss her use of “challenge problems” in her classes. She assigns the problems throughout the semester to allow students to use applied focus while analyzing and applying the knowledge they’ve been exposed to in class.

The problems allow students, especially those simply taking calculus as a prerequisite, to use the method for real-life problem-solving.

“Students are pretty used to repetition and seeing work on the board and doing homework,” Grotheer says. “This pushes them out of their comfort zone, and I’m helping to build these cognitive skills. ‘Challenge problems’ can establish appreciation to deal with things that don’t have pretty answers.”

Grotheer also will discuss her “Feature Friday” topics, which are short presentations that she gives at the start of every Friday class to introduce students to a different type of mathematics. Her “Feature Friday” presentations have shown how mathematics can be used to explore ways to build better bicycles or to measure social factors in cities. She encourages students to create their own “Feature Friday” presentations, and students have researched topics such as finding and rescuing people lost at sea, modeling appropriate gathering sizes during the COVID-19 pandemic, finding the perfect temperature for a steak, optimizing hospital bed placement in hospitals, and the dynamics of competitive running and swimming. They also have presented the biographies of famous mathematicians such as Katherine Johnson, Hypatia of Alexandria, Paul Erdös and John Conway.

The Joint Mathematics Meetings usually have between 6,000 and 9,000 mathematicians in attendance. The COVID-19 pandemic forced it to scrap plans for an in-person gathering earlier this year in Seattle, Washington.

Creamer, a mathematics major from Davidson, North Carolina, will present research he conducted over the summer with Grotheer that modeled humanity’s chance at survival following a catastrophic event.

“I’m looking forward to being surrounded by so many interesting ideas and perspectives,” Creamer says. “I cannot wait to attend the lectures and ask a lot of questions. I am excited and very grateful for the opportunity to attend such a conference.”

As an applied mathematician, Grotheer is excited about introducing Creamer to such a large gathering of mathematicians.

“I’m looking forward to introducing Chase to the math world and networking,” she says.

Creamer can’t wait.

“The math department at Wofford is already like a second family to me,” he says. “I feel like this conference is a sort of family reunion.”