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College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Solving real-world issues through mathematics

The Math Clinic course first began in the early 1980s with a seminar simulating the meltdown of nuclear reactors. Students were posed the question: How do you write a computer simulation of a nuclear reactor that will detect what has gone wrong before the meltdown occurs and provide the actions to correct the problem? Back then, with the state of computer technology, it took two days for simulators to come up with suggested courses of action. Today the questions and answers move much more quickly, and the Math Clinic is preparing CU Denver students for the challenges they will face tomorrow.

The course is intended to give students practical experience applying mathematics to real-world problems. In the Clinic, students work as a research team with faculty, collaborating to address a problem of interest to a sponsoring corporation or government agency. In past partnerships, students have been introduced to applied research while working with corporations and organizations like Raytheon, Computerized Medical Systems and the Denver Mayor's Office. The Clinic emphasizes multidisciplinary problem solving, technical communications, teamwork and project management. Students are not only applying mathematics to practical real-world issues, but gaining access to a company or individual in their field of interest.

Recently, the class was tasked with developing more efficient algorithms for use in the aerospace industry. United Launch Alliance, an aerospace company based in Centennial, Colorado, sponsored the problems that Math Clinic students worked to solve. ULA provided the students with characteristics of a problem, and Associate Professor Stephen Billups, Ph.D., worked alongside students to find solutions. "CU Denver operates its Math Clinic as a research team and focuses on solving real business problems," Billups said. "United Launch Alliance has given our students the opportunity to collaborate and understand how they can apply their skills in the workforce."

Student Thad Smidt, who has worked as an information technology professional for 10 years, said Math Clinic is "almost exactly" like the real world. "You encounter the same types of problems with technology, having to work with other people, obstacles and having to present a final product."

Zach Richards, ULA optimization engineer and university research manager, said he will take the students’ work back to his firm, where their solutions will be tested. "Math Clinic is very beneficial to ULA because it allows us to think outside the box by reaching out to the university and having the students look at a problem with a fresh perspective," Richards said. "It allows them to bring forward unique ideas to a problem that is well-known and well-understood by our engineers." Richards studied math at CU Denver himself, was a Math Clinic student in spring 2006, and is bringing the mission of the Clinic full circle with his participation today.