The first St. Norbert College mathematics student to present a research talk was Suzanne Anderson in 1984 at the Wisconsin Section Mathematical Association of America (MAA) Meeting held that year on our campus. Her talk was titled, “Twenty-Five Point Geometry,” which was mentored by Rick Poss (now Professor Emeritus). Suzanne’s experience was the impetus for establishing a chapter of the Pi Mu Epsilon National Honorary Mathematics Society (PME) at the College.
In 1985, Cynthia Stuber became the first St. Norbert math student to speak at a national conference. She presented a research talk titled, “Network Modeling in a Transportation Environment,” at the PME National Meeting (now part of MathFest) held that year at the University of Wyoming, Laramie in conjunction with the Joint Mathematics Meetings of the American Mathematical Society (AMS) and the MAA. Since 1985, and every summer since (absent the cancellation in 2020), St. Norbert mathematics students have been presenting annually at the PME National Conference each August. No other college or university can make that claim. Students have traveled across the nation (and internationally to Vancouver, British Columbia in 1993 then Toronto, Ontario in 1998) by van and airplane with faculty mentors to attend these meetings. To help finance travel to conferences, the Mathematics Discipline established the Math Club Travel Fund supported by gifts from alumni.
From that seminal talk in 1984 to date, our students have given research presentations at many regional conferences, including not only at multiple meetings of the Wisconsin Section of the MAA but PME Regional Conferences at Miami University in OH, St. John’s University in MN, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in IN, and at our own campus. St. Norbert Mathematics has annually hosted a PME Regional Conference at the College each November since 1986 (absent the cancellation in 2020). There have been thirty-five PME Conferences hosted by SNC and counting. In its years, this PME Conference has seen undergraduate math students give research presentations from more than twenty-five regional colleges and universities as part of a two-day meeting that includes a keynote speaker and a lively math competition for student attendees.
Between 1984 and 2007, undergraduate students elected to do research projects either during the semesters independently, informally with St. Norbert math professors, or at summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) at other universities. These students prepared their work for dissemination under the mentorship of the math faculty at the College. This worked well but was a tenuous situation without the structure needed to ensure continuity into the future.
In 2007, Terry Jo Leiterman and Rick Poss formed the idea of a program that would support students to work with a faculty mentor from the SNC Mathematics Discipline during the summer. The work would result in presentation of that research at the national MathFest meeting of the MAA and PME in August and again at the PME Regional Undergraduate Math Conference held annually in November at St. Norbert College. The students would be paid a full-time wage while members of the mathematics faculty agreed to mentor students without pay for six to eight weeks. An endowment of $160,000 was the target. Gifts from Rick Poss and Tao Huang provided the support needed by the program for student wages during the early years before the endowment goal was met. Consequently, the program at St. Norbert College was launched in 2008 when Stephanie Schauer and Corey Vorland became the first St. Norbert math students paid for summer undergraduate research at the College. They worked on a project under the mentorship of Terry Jo Leiterman, which led to a MathFest talk titled, “Modeling Diatom Growth in Trout Lake” given in Portland, OR.
During the first five summers, the program was able to generate financial support for eleven St. Norbert College undergraduate research students in mathematics. Then in 2013, Ed Wroble provided a major gift with the suggestion that the endowment for summer research be merged with the Math Club Travel Fund and be named the Rick and Cindy Poss Math Research and Travel Fund. As a result of Ed’s generosity, additional gifts from Tao Huang, and the support of other SNC math alumni, the Fund now stands at over $425,000. In honor of the generosity of Rick Poss and Ed Wroble, the SNC math summer research students became designated Poss-Wroble Fellows. The Fund now supports two to four students each summer to develop as scholars and professional mathematicians while earning a full-time competitive wage for six to ten weeks of mentored research leading to presentation at a national conference. The Fund also covers all expenses to the national MathFest meeting for the summer’s Poss-Wroble Fellows in addition to providing support for students that present research done independently or through an REU.
In 2015, Larry Thorsen (now Professor Emeritus) suggested that the program would be stronger if math faculty could receive a stipend for their otherwise unpaid summer work. The Mathematics Summer Research Mentoring Fund was set up for this purpose. Substantial gifts from Ed Wroble, Tao Huang, and Pat Dunks have raised this endowment fund to over $130,000. The goal is to have the funds provide faculty mentors with a stipend commensurate with the pay for teaching a course during the SNC Summer Session. Gifts continue to be solicited for both endowment funds as the student application pool grows in size and talent while math faculty provide increasing mentorship, enthusiasm, and devotion.
The Poss-Wroble Fellowship continues a long and proud tradition of promoting undergraduate research in the mathematics discipline. The Summer Undergraduate Research Program in Mathematics at St. Norbert College is now recognized as a model for other colleges and universities to emulate. Whether through financial support or effort, the SNC Mathematics Discipline extends deep gratitude to all those who have contributed resources that have enabled and sustained the success of this impactful and respected program.