VLP Speaker Delivers Double Bill to Bates Faculty, Students, and Visitors

September 15, 1998

A veteran of SIAM's Visiting Lecturer Program, T. Christine Stevens has learned to tailor her talks to the needs of faculty and students, as she did during two presentations in May at Bates College, where she discussed the "ham sandwich theorem" and the role of women in mathematics and science.

During a visit to Bates College, in Lewiston, Maine, on May 18, T. Christine Stevens, a professor in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at St. Louis University and a participant in SIAM's Visiting Lecturer Program (VLP), discussed two topics-one particularly timely and one strictly technical-in mathematics.

The VLP, sponsored by SIAM's Education Committee, is designed to be a valuable resource to undergraduate students and their advisers, department chairs, and colloquium organizers. The program provides speakers who have experience in a broad range of mathematical areas; most presentations can be tailored to meet the needs of a specific audience. Speakers can also provide insight into current trends in technology, which can expose audiences to new ideas and problems.

Stevens, who is a well-known expert and frequent speaker on topology and the history of mathematics, had been asked to prepare two talks-one for mathematics majors and one for a broader audience with an interest in women's studies. She chose the subjects of both talks with care.

"I felt that, if a woman mathematician was going to give two talks, one of the talks should have serious mathematical content," says Stevens. Therefore, at the afternoon presentation for faculty and students, she discussed the "ham sandwich theorem" (which states that given three volumes in Euclidean three-space, there is at least one plane that simultaneously bisects the three volumes) and applications of the theorem. Stevens focused this presentation on how mathematicians can combine analysis and geometry to prove a theorem in topology, a topic that she had learned was of particular interest to the students at Bates.

Stevens "delivered a nice presentation of a well-known technical result," says Patricia Johann, a professor in the mathematics department, who co-hosted the event with Bonnie Shulman, another faculty member in the Bates College mathematics department. Stevens "has a great presentation style: humorous and light-hearted, yet precise and clear," Johann continues.

That evening, Stevens addressed a more general audience that included a local economics professor, an audio-visual specialist, and several visiting faculty members from nearby Bowdoin College, in addition to faculty members and students from the mathematics department at Bates. The evening topic, "Mathematical Inequalities, Social Inequalities, and Science Education," highlighted the role of women in mathematics and science and, Johann says, sparked wide-ranging discussions of an important topic in a stimulating and engaging way.

"The main point of this talk," explains Stevens, "was that the underrepresentation of women in science and mathematics has undesirable consequences for society as a whole. This underrepresentation, stems, in part, from the choices that girls make in middle and secondary school."

Characterizing both of Stevens's presentations as "close to perfect," Johann expects to call on other VLP speakers in the future. The faculty members involved in the planning of the presentation were "very happy" with the results, she notes.
"It's good for students to see different perspectives" from those presented by their own faculty, says Johann, just as it's "good for faculty members to connect with new people, who may have new ideas." The Bates mathematics department does sponsor a regular colloquium series that features its own faculty members as well as a few outside speakers, explains Johann, but the department can use visits like these, available through the SIAM program, to expand the classroom experience and look at many mathematical topics on many different levels.

As for Stevens, she will continue to consider speaking at other colleges and universities as one element of an academic career in mathematics that is both satisfying and fun. "I enjoy meeting faculty at different kinds of institutions and learning about the academic programs there," Stevens says. "My visit to Bates was no exception."

"Speakers from out-side a host university can stretch students' understanding of mathematics in ways that regular faculty members teaching regular courses cannot," Stevens adds. "Visitors are relieved of an instructor's usual responsibility to make each class build on the previous one and to present material that is clearly linked to student exercises and course objectives. This gives speakers the freedom to introduce new topics and to draw novel connections in ways that might not fit into the context of a traditionally structured course."

Information about the Visiting Lecturer Program can be found on SIAM's Web page (http://www.siam.org).

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