To the uninitiated, the jumble of ones, zeros, and symbols on the dry-erase board at the front of the classroom in the Lindsay Center for Science and Mathematics appears nonsensical. For the students taking Mathematics Seminar Honors, the figures presented are a departure from the algebra, geometry, and calculus they have encountered, but serve as a bridge to comprehending abstract mathematics.
"It's been a leap of faith," says Caroline Bonnett '19. "There is a cultural perception of high math, and what high math really is. There is this idea that everyone who does it is an Alan Turing," she says of the famous code breaker. "It's been nice to get a glance at what it really is like."
To take Mathematics Seminar Honors, students must exhaust the School’s mathematics requirements. The final destination before the seminar course is Multivariable Calculus. After that, mathematics takes an entirely different – and intangible – form. At this level, says Bonnett, “Math is a creative pursuit.”
This year pupils have encountered proofs, how a theory is proven; group theory, the symmetry and movement of molecules; and cryptography, also known as encryption, commonly used in computer science.
The topics change each term. “We don’t have a book,” explains instructor Dr. Christopher Morse. Morse holds an A.B. in chemistry from Dartmouth and a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and taught chemistry at Tufts University and Olin College before arriving in Millville. Morse typically incorporates puzzles into his assignments, but this year he let the students lead him to the coursework that would be most challenging. “(Group theory) is taught in high-level chemical physics,” says Morse of the class’s focus during the Winter Term. “I didn’t take this (type of course) until I was in graduate school.”
Walking into class at the end of Winter Term, a current of excitement flowed through the room as students sought to decipher molecular symmetry. By distinguishing a molecule's shape and symmetry, they would be able to predict its movement. The class takes on a team-solving logic. As far as Morse is concerned, there can never be too many questions. “Asking specific questions is really important,” says Jesse Ereyi ’20. “If you are confused you can immediately clarify it in that moment instead of letting it build. This class is cumulative. Everything you learn, you use in the next topic.”
The small class size also helps. “Since there are only six of us we can take the time to pause and learn more or discuss interesting things," explains Ereyi.
For Jason Chen '19, the course has expanded his thinking in more than just abstract mathematical theory. “Math is endless,” says Chen. “It gets a lot less linear the higher you go. You are in this vast math universe. After taking this course, you can understand the world better.”