In the media today, there continues to be much discussion about how students in North America are moving away from the math, science, and engineering disciplines. It is an established fact that countries such as China, South Korea, and Taiwan graduate a much higher number of engineering students than those in North America. This is a cause for great concern in today’s highly complex world, and schools are attempting to solve the problem with math in a variety of ways, with varying success rates.

I don’t think anyone would challenge the statement that these technical fields are critical in the modern world. Over the last half-century, mathematics and science have changed our lives in ways we couldn’t have dreamed of. We’ve witnessed the introduction of major technology innovations, including:

  • the rise of the Internet
  • the invention of the microwave oven
  • the ability to communicate through wireless signal transmission
  • global positioning systems (GPS)
  • the completion of the human genome sequence
  • commercial jet airplanes which have enabled mass public air travel
  • the use of industrial robots
  • satellite communications
  • medical advances such as magnetic resonance imaging

These, of course, are only a few examples of many. Those in both education and industry know that it is increasingly important to address the issues to remain competitive on the world stage.

However, while this may indeed be the trend, it’s not all doom and gloom. Here at Maplesoft, we are continually amazed by the talented math and science students who come to work with us and what they are able to achieve. Maplesoft employs a number of co-op and intern students on a regular basis in numerous departments. (It’s always a challenge to ascertain whether new faces in the halls are new full-time employees, or simply students visiting for four months!) We have had students from all over, from schools near (the University of Waterloo) and far (L’Université Pierre et Marie Curie - Paris, France), studying majors as diverse as engineering, physics, philosophy, and of course, mathematics.

I find it extremely rewarding to work beside these intelligent, energetic students. They bring to their daily tasks a new perspective and enthusiasm and apply themselves with dedication to their tasks, coming up with impressive results. A few of them even came out for an early morning bug fest last week! It’s encouraging to see that despite what we keep hearing, there are still many students out there who have a passion for, and excel, in both math and science.

Students at Maplesoft have worked in mathematical programming and algorithm development, interface development, and technical application development. On the research and development side of the building, students working in the Math group have the chance to actually work with the code that comprises Maple. They need to learn and understand the various mathematical and computer algorithms they are dealing with, learn a new programming language (Maple, if they don’t already know it), and become familiar with the software development lifecycle and processes. Students in other departments work on more “real-world” projects such as developing engineering applications for specific industries, allowing them to put to use the theoretical concepts they’ve learned at school.

Current projects that students are assisting with include:

  • Numerical analysis algorithm development
  • Evaluating the latest IEEE standard for floating-point arithmetic and determining how it applies to Maple
  • Developing training material for students who use Maple
  • Integrating new mathematical packages into Maple
  • Developing engineering models in MapleSim

Another one even brings me my morning coffee. Ok, I’m just kidding. I actually drink tea.

I think the real take-away message here is that no matter what the situation is at the macro level, if you’re willing to put in the time and effort, you can do amazing things. After all, as the great Paul Erdős allegedly said, “A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems” - it just might take a while.

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