LPM Staff

It’s a math, math, math, math world

Decrease Font Size Increase Font Size Text Size Print This Page

Nancy Valtierra and Betty Durham confer on a math problem. Photo by Kristin Countryman

Ask five people how they feel about mathematics, and chances are three of them will make a face, as if you had just suggested they eat a peanut butter and hormiga sandwich.

Ask ASU student Nancy Valtierra the same question, and she’d smile. She’s one of those people who actually likes math. It has always come easy to her, yet it wasn’t until high school that she really started to enjoy the subject. In her sophomore year at Apache Junction High School, her math teacher told her about the Math-Science Honors Program (MSHP) at Arizona State University and encouraged Nancy to look into it. Nancy put off applying until the last minute, perhaps reluctant to give up her summer, but managed to get her paperwork submitted in time for the 2009 session. “I didn’t know what to expect,” says Nancy. “I was scared. It seemed pretty intense.”

Her instincts were right: it was intense – and intensive. After the first week, Nancy told her mother she didn’t want to continue; it was way more math than she could handle, so she thought. But her mamacita wasn’t going to let Nancy run from her fears. She was going to finish what she started.

And Nancy Valtierra did finish what she started, even though the program’s intensity didn’t let up. The next summer, she enrolled in MSHP again.

“It’s math 24/7,” says Betty Durham, another MSHP double graduate and Nancy’s close friend. The two girls met during the 2009 session and were dorm suitemates the following summer. A math whiz herself  (“ever since I was a kid”), Betty likes that math is such a black-and-white subject. “It’s either right or wrong,” she says, matter-of-factly. “It’s not open to interpretation.”

Or is it a SMET world?

What may be open to interpretation is how important math is in the grand scheme of things – but not wide open. If you haven’t already heard, we’re living in the Information Age. Technology and an endless appetite for instantaneous information has taken us from a “manufacturing” social economy to one bursting with technical trade and, in turn, new jobs requiring the utmost in math, science and engineering skills.

After the 2000 Land of Plenty reports by the National Science and Technology Council and the Commission for the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering and Technology identified “the perils inherent in a society characterized by ethnic, gender and socioeconomic disparity,” U.S. business leaders were also warning of a potential shortage of skilled workers. For the United States to strengthen its place in the world economy, the pool of science, math, engineering and technology (SMET) workers needed to expand – and to diversify to compete in the global marketplace.

Professor Joaquin Bustoz Jr. must have had a SMET premonition of sorts, or maybe he was simply ahead of the curve when he established the Math-Science Honors Program at Arizona State University in 1985. If he were alive today (Dr. Bustoz died of complications from a car accident in 2003), he would have celebrated the program’s 25th anniversary last month. Since its inception, 2,300 students representing 140 high schools from across Arizona have attended MSHP.

A native of Tempe, Arizona, Bustoz fell in love with math at an early age. He was the son of farm workers who also devoted years of service to the Tempe Elementary School District (the Joaquin and Ramona Bustoz Elementary School was named after his parents). His education was well rooted in the university town, where he attended elementary and secondary schools, and chalked up a B.A. in 1962, an M.A. in 1963 and a Ph.D. in 1964 – all in mathematics, all at ASU.

In 1973, Bustoz was a senior Fulbright lecturer in Colombia. He spent some time in Cincinnati teaching math, and returned to Tempe to teach at ASU in the late 1970s. He was the math department chair from 1982 to 1985, the same year he initiated the Math-Science Honors Program, which became “a national model for the development of minority students seeking careers in math, science and engineering.”

Bustoz was also the director of the SUMS Institute (Strengthening Understanding of Mathematics and Science) from 1993 to 2003.  In 1996, the National Science Foundation honored him and SUMS Institute with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. That same year, Bustoz was chosen for the ASU Alumni Association’s Outstanding Faculty Service Award, which he received again in 2002. Among his students and colleagues, Bustoz will always be remembered for his passion for mathematics and his desire to help underrepresented students reach their full potential.

Pages: 1 2 3

You must be logged in to post a comment Login