Western Carolina University


Image: Della Fenster
Della Fenster, associate professor of mathematics at the University of Richmond, will deliver the keynote address.

Della Fenster, associate professor of mathematics at the University of Richmond, will deliver the keynote address “Mathematics: A Question of History” at the second annual Smoky Mountain Undergraduate Research Conference on the History of Mathematics.

Fenster, who speaks in Room 214 of the McKee Building at Western Carolina University at 10 a.m. Saturday, April 22, will set the tone for a day of undergraduate presentations on topics from “Zero-phobia” to “Florence Nightingale: Statistician.”

At the University of Richmond, Fenster teaches across the mathematics curriculum, including calculus, linear algebra, abstract algebra and number theory, as well as a course designed to cultivate critical thinking for first-year students. Her honors include the 2003 University of Richmond Distinguished Educator Award and the 2004 State Council of Higher Education for Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award.

Her research lies in the history of mathematics, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  She recently returned from the Erwin Schrödinger Institute for Mathematics and Physics in Vienna, Austria, where she pursued a collaborative project related to the development of class field theory and continued work on a biography of the American mathematician Leonard Dickson.

“I hope the audience will begin to view mathematics as a vibrant field with a very human dimension,” Fenster said.

The Mathematical Association of America is helping fund the conference, which is designed to create opportunities for undergraduate students to present mathematically oriented talks and to expand their knowledge of theory, history and applications. Conference presenters include students from Western, Davidson College, Auburn University at Montgomery and University of North Carolina-Asheville.

“The conference gives undergraduates a forum in which to present and explore research in an area that is central to both mathematics and mathematics education in a place that is central to many universities and colleges in the southeastern United States,” said Sloan Despeaux, conference organizer and WCU assistant professor of math and computer science.

Participants include WCU student Chelsea Gilliam from Hickory, who will be co-presenting a paper about the history of pi, a number (approximated as 3.14159) that represents the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter.

“We are going to be talking about ancient methods used to come up with the value of pi,” said Gilliam, who plans to major in math and minor in special education. She began studying the history of pi after a discussion in a history of math class that deepened her interest in the subject.  “This class turned out to be one of the most interesting courses I've ever taken,” she said. “I am proud to be part of the conference, especially as a freshman.”

Constance Markley, a WCU junior majoring in secondary mathematics education, studied 17th century French mathematician Pierre de Fermat and his famous Last Theorem, which she said many consider the holy grail of the mathematics world.

“Researching this topic was a blast,” said Markley of Waynesville. “Fermat's Last Theorem itself is so simple that a 10-year-old can understand it, yet it took over 350 years of the world's most brilliant mathematicians' diligent work to prove it.”

For more information, check out paws.wcu.edu/Despeaux/2smurchom.html or contact Sloan Despeaux at (828) 227-3825 or despeaux@wcu.edu .

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Last modified: Monday, April 17, 2006
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