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Sharing Her Passion for Knowledge

Monday, July 9, 2012

Monica VanDieren

As a leading researcher in pure mathematics, many see Monica VanDieren, Ph.D., as a role model—and rightly so. But this comes as a surprise to her. 

"That was never really my goal," says VanDieren, professor of mathematics at RMU. "I want to learn. I want to contribute to the creation of new knowledge and to be able to share new discoveries with students so that they may become excited about STEM advancements and make discoveries of their own." 

VanDieren's research focuses mainly on 20th-century math and theorems, looking at what is known and proving new theorems from that knowledge. Her specialty lies in mathematical logic." New mathematics is being created every day," she says, "and it is exciting to be able to import this new knowledge into classes and outreach activities.”

This spring VanDieren and fellow professor Heather Pinson, Ph.D., interim head of RMU's Department of Communications, are collaborating in "Math, Music, and Art", a course that discusses common themes shared by musicians and mathematicians. First taught in spring of 2011, the class, which was recognized by the National Collegiate Honors Council as a model course, identifies four specific themes in 20th-century math and art: symmetry, infinity and the finite, searching for truth or one's true self, and improvisation as part of the creative process. 

"The students connect with this class in a different way," says VanDieren. "They learn not only about 20th-century math, music, and art productions, but they are also exposed to the personal stories of the mathematicians, artists, and musicians who struggled to break down walls and make advances to redefine their disciplines."

In 2011, honors student Jaclyn Wilson, then a sophomore, presented her final project, "Neo-Riemannian Theory and John Williams’ Music", at the Mathematical Association of America's MathFest event. That same year, an actuarial science major wrote a four-page poem about the creative process, and another group of students wrote and performed their own classical arrangement of Pachelbel's Canon in D Major, influenced by mathematical symmetries.

VanDieren’s devotion to education extends beyond research in her field as well. When she first arrived at RMU, she played a major role in developing the university's Expanding Your Horizons Initiative, designed to encourage girls in junior high to become more involved in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (a.k.a. STEM) fields. 

She also serves as co-director of RMU's Honors Program, along with Philip J. Harold, Ph.D., political science associate professor and dean of the School of Education and Social Sciences. "The honors program enables me to see the impact that RMU has had on the lives of its students," says VanDieren. "I see most of them almost daily for the four years they’re in college, and I still talk with some of them after they graduate, getting feedback on how we’re affecting their lives. It’s a very rewarding part of the job."

When VanDieren first got involved with the honors program in 2008, there were fewer than 80 students participating; today there are 170. The program's curriculum has expanded over the years from just humanities and communication skills to include other disciplines and now includes majors from every one of RMU's five academic schools. The overall quality of the program has improved as well, thanks to greater faculty involvement as well as the over 50 on-campus events throughout the year, which include round table presentations, guest speakers, book clubs and more. In-coming freshman honors students get a chance to get an early start on their education by participating in a summer reading program, and honors students even have their own honors dorm, creating a true living-learning environment. 

"The students are really taking ownership of their education based on their interests and their career goals," says VanDieren. "They are creating new knowledge—stuff they won't find in any textbook. They're really breaking new ground."