By Maggie Roth, Communication Arts major '10
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
July 13, 2009
WENHAM, MA—In a small classroom on the campus of Gordon College, five students have been working this summer on something that has never been done before. Together they explore constraint sampling, manipulating equations and new algorithms.
They’re part of a team led by Michael Veatch, professor of mathematics, who won a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) three years ago to research how to reduce congestion using mathematical models.
“It’s a little bit scary and overwhelming to be doing something that no one’s done before, but it is also very rewarding,” said Rob Harkins ’11, a mathematics major from Rehoboth, Massachusetts.
Jonathan Senning, professor of mathematics and department chair, and Veatch have worked together with the students in the final phases of Veatch’s NSF research grant. The team is trying to create mathematical tools that will help solve complex network control problems in manufacturing processes, supply chains, service operations and computer networks, which will enable many industries to provide products and services more efficiently and cost-effectively.
In 2006 Veatch was awarded the grant from the engineering division of NSF, where the success rate for applicants was one in seven and funding for research at liberal arts colleges was rare. Veatch applied for the NSF’s “Controlling Complex Networks” grant because it would enable him to hire students to help him in his specialized area of applied math. Veatch believes the work the students are doing is cutting edge, and very few undergraduates are given the opportunity to do research at this level.
“It is gratifying that Gordon College can participate alongside larger universities in important scientific research at the undergraduate level that prepares more students to pursue careers in science and engineering,” said Veatch. “The project incorporates student researchers, providing them invaluable experience as they prepare for graduate school while also helping find solutions for real problems.”
The Gordon students working on this research include two computer science majors—Chris Pfohl ’10, Manlius, New York; and Taylor Carr ’10, Middletown Springs, Vermont; as well as three mathematics majors—Harkins; Lauren Berger ’10, Deerfield, New Hampshire; and Lauren Meitzler ’11, Ashburnham, Massachusetts.
“We all have our own areas of expertise, but what I like about doing this work is that even though it is independent, we are all working towards one thing and we have to come together as a team,” says Berger.
The fundamental research the students are doing involves developing and testing new algorithms and writing papers about them.
“We are trying to come up with a way to control machines to be more efficient. We create programs that read in a description of a problem and come up with appropriate solutions,” says Pfohl, who is also a biblical studies major. This is Pfohl’s second year working with the project, and he says he feels more comfortable with his research this year because he has more experience and a greater understanding of mathematics. “I like knowing why the math works, not just how to do it,” he says.
The student researchers say they enjoy the hands-on problem solving they’re doing, work that usually doesn’t get done in a classroom setting. When Pfohl and his fellow students finally discover a solution, he says it is one of the “top 10 feelings in the world. We’re working on something no one has figured out before. This is truly original research. It is exciting to imagine that eventually what we’re researching will be used in a real-life situation with real people,” says Pfohl.
The findings Veatch and his students are putting together are fundamental and foundational research that others may implement down the road. “We’d be a series of steps away before a company actually uses this, but our research has the potential for many applications,” says Veatch.
In other words, the productivity process in everything from manufacturing assembly lines to check out lines in grocery stores could be enhanced from this research.
“I didn’t even know this kind of research existed when I came to college,” Berger says. “But doing this work shows you what you’re capable of and takes you beyond the classroom. You can really surprise yourself with what you can do and it ultimately helps others.”