In 2004, I learned about the Regional Undergraduate Mathematics Conferences (RUMC) program, led by the Mathematical Association of America and funded by the Division of Mathematical Sciences of the National Science Foundation. This program makes small grants to regionallyfocused conferences that give undergraduates opportunities to present mathematicallyoriented research. I thought, “Why not propose a conference devoted to undergraduate research on the history of mathematics in the beautiful Smoky Mountains?” I proposed, the RUMC program kindly accepted, and SMURCHOM was born. The Smoky Mountain Undergraduate Conference on the History of Mathematics might have an unwieldy acronym (no, it is not a conference for smirking or for small blue cartoon characters), but it has provided opportunities for students to share their work on and enthusiasm about the history of mathematics with their counterparts from institutions around the Southeast and beyond. Personally, SMURCHOM has given me a way to intensely motivate undergraduate research in my history of mathematics classes.
In 2004, I learned about the Regional Undergraduate Mathematics Conferences (RUMC) program, led by the Mathematical Association of America and funded by the Division of Mathematical Sciences of the National Science Foundation. This program makes small grants to regionallyfocused conferences that give undergraduates opportunities to present mathematicallyoriented research. I thought, “Why not propose a conference devoted to undergraduate research on the history of mathematics in the beautiful Smoky Mountains?” I proposed, the RUMC program kindly accepted, and SMURCHOM was born. The Smoky Mountain Undergraduate Conference on the History of Mathematics might have an unwieldy acronym (no, it is not a conference for smirking or for small blue cartoon characters), but it has provided opportunities for students to share their work on and enthusiasm about the history of mathematics with their counterparts from institutions around the Southeast and beyond. Personally, SMURCHOM has given me a way to intensely motivate undergraduate research in my history of mathematics classes.
Since 2005, I have organized five SMURCHOMs (after 2008, this conference shifted to being held on a biannual, rather than annual basis). While the core of our student and faculty participants come from the Southeast, specifically from the Carolinas, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, Virginia, and Maryland, we have also welcomed participants from Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Vermont, California, and British Columbia. Faculty encouragement is essential to making SMURCHOM a success. For example, Danny Otero of Xavier Univerity encouraged his student, Fabiola Arce, to give a talk on her research on El Sumario Compendioso, the first mathematics book published in the New World. Betty Mayfield has twice travelled to SMURCHOM with her Hood College students, who presented posters on notable women from the history of mathematics.
Besides committed faculty, a constant for SMURCHOM has been the keynote address. The speakers, Adrian Rice of RandolphMacon College, Della Fenster of the University of Richmond, Deborah Kent of Hillsdale College, and Patti Hunter of Westmont College, have exposed SMURCHOM participants to current research in history of mathematics, provided excellent models for how to present this research, and shared their journeys as historians of mathematics.
Adrian Rice (RandolphMacon College) delivering the keynote at SMURCHOM V (photo credit: Sloan Evans Despeaux).
In addition to the keynote address, the first SMURCHOM included two sessions of student talks. SMURCHOM II added a student poster session, which gave more opportunities and another format for students to share their research. SMURCHOM III extended the conference’s mission to presenting research in mathematics informed by its history. These expansions have resulted in marked growth in student presenters to the conference (Table 1): while six students presented in 2005, thirtyfour presented in 2010. Parallel sessions allow student participants more choices, and numerous coffee breaks encourage students to socialize and network.

2010 
2008 
2007 
2006 
2005 
Number of Attending Schools 
15 
14 
7 
11 
7 
Number of Student Presenters 
34 
30 
17 
23 
6 
Total Attendance 
97 
79 
43 
53 
40* 
Total Undergraduate Student Attendance 
68 
49 
24 
31 
25* 
Total Undergraduate Student Attendance External to Host School 
24 
17 
10 
16 
15* 
(* means number is an estimate) 

In response to students’ requests for activities that are both thoughtprovoking and dynamic, past SMURCHOMs have included an Internet scavenger hunt, a picnic lunch, and even a disc golf championship, in which the number of discs given to a team depended on the number of correct answers to a history of mathematics quiz. SMURCHOM V was held in conjunction with the first Sonia Kovalevsky Mathematics Day at Western Carolina University, and several activities (such as a career panel and the poster session) were open to both groups.
As SMURCHOM has evolved over the years, so has the way that I incorporate the conference experience into my history of mathematics course. This course is a semesterlong overview of the history of mathematics, beginning in ancient Egypt and concluding with the discovery of the calculus. It is required for our mathematics majors who plan to teach in secondary schools. It counts as an elective course for other mathematics majors, those minoring in mathematics, and elementary and middle grades education majors earning a second academic concentration in mathematics. Students ideally take the course as juniors, and all have taken Calculus I as a prerequisite. Graduate students from our MS in Applied Mathematics and MAEd in Mathematics Education may also take the course; additional assignments allow these students to apply the course towards their degree program.
SMURCHOM gives my history of mathematics students the opportunity to host a regional conference and discuss their research interests in the history of mathematics with students from a variety of other institutions. Therefore, the main goals of my history of mathematics course focus on fostering these interests and giving students the tools to become independent researchers. Any undergraduate education should foster a student’s ability to research independently; this ability is especially vital in the history of mathematics, a subject that could never be completely covered in any series of courses.
I have always started my course with an introduction to primary and secondary sources in the history of mathematics. Because many of these sources are now available electronically, this introduction has developed into an internet worksheet and quiz that emphasize reliable sources. The assignment and quiz may be downloaded here.
Using the Internet to Conduct Research in the History of Mathematics Assignment
History of Mathematics on the Web Scavenger Hunt Quiz
After learning about these sources, my students begin the process of choosing a topic. The timing of the course and SMURCHOM means that my students must get their research underway before they have completed an overview of the history of mathematics. In past courses, this timing has resulted in students struggling with finding research topics and entirely too many research projects on easily recognizable mathematicians covered early on in the course, such as Pythagoras and Euclid. This year (2010), I introduced a topic list in order to combat these problems. I compiled many of the entries on this topic list while attending sessions on the history of mathematics at the Joint Mathematics Meeting in San Francisco in January 2010, so that my students would pursue fresh research directions. I worried that this topic list could constrain my students’ creativity, so I emphasized that the list should only be viewed as a starting point. At this point in their projects, my students often visit me during my office hours to brainstorm about ideas and to search for sources.
To accompany their research topics, my students have to form a research question. Early in the course, they read several articles from Historia Mathematica with an eye towards research questions and historical arguments. They then write a project proposal presenting their own ideas about questions they might raise, arguments they might make, and sources they might use in their project. I find that this onetotwo page document prevents procrastination, forces focus, and provides me with an early alert to anyone on the wrong research track. In addition, careful editing of this document allows me to convey my expectations of writing mechanics and style.
Students presenting their poster at SMURCHOM V (photo credit: Sloan Evans Despeaux).
The addition of the poster presentation to SMURCHOM allowed me to form another intermediate step in the research project. About one month before SMURCHOM, my students present posters based on their research topics to a panel of judges from my department. The stakes are high: the winners of the poster competition are chosen to give talks at SMURCHOM and do not have to write a final paper. I find that this incentive results in truly excellent posters and very motivated students. The “runnersup” in this judging process are invited to present at the SMURCHOM poster session. Besides being an important intermediate step in the research process, this inclass poster session helps build community among my students.
Presenting a poster or talk at SMURCHOM gives meaning and a great sense of accomplishment to my students’ projects. I find that they take pride in their work; for example, some invite family members to the conference. Even for students not presenting, SMURCHOM is another important step in the research process, because it exposes them to the ways other presenters ask questions and make historical arguments.
The final step in the research project is crafting the final paper. My students have commented that all of the intermediate steps make this final one much easier. I find that their biggest hurdles are effectively organizing the paper and providing citations for it. Our university’s writing center is a great help with these hurdles. In the past, I have made a visit to the writing center mandatory. This year, I gave a “carrot” instead of a “stick”: students who used the writing center got a oneweek extension on their papers’ deadline. Unsurprisingly, almost every student used the writing center!
Thomas Harriot: Father of Modern Notation, by Layla Biddix (Western Carolina University)
Reading in Context: The Reception of Gerolamo Cardano's Liber De Ludo Aleae, by Nathan Bowman (Western Carolina University)
The Moore Method: Its Impact on Four Female Ph.D. Students, by Jackie Selevan (Western Carolina University)
Michel Rolle and His Method of Cascades, by Christopher Washington (Georgia College & State University)
Maria Agnesi: Female Mathematician of 18thCentury Italy, by Hannah Watson (Western Carolina University)
Student Views
I ask all SMURCHOM participants to complete evaluation forms. The participants liked the format of the conference, especially the posters and the keynote speakers. One participant appreciated the choices allowed between the more technical and the contextual history of mathematics talks by the parallel sessions. One participant, an elementary mathematics major, was not especially interested in mathematics, but left the conference with a new appreciation of the subject and its history. Additionally, my student course evaluations from this year included appreciation about the research project process, whose many steps prevented procrastination. Another evaluation lauded the critical thinking that the course encouraged.
Looking Towards the Future
Organizing an undergraduate conference while preparing students to present at the conference is a challenging endeavor. This year, SMURCHOM happened soon after I gave my midterms, and as a result, I found it very hard to grade the examinations quickly. In the future, I might give two shorter exams that give SMURCHOM a wide berth. I am also considering changing my policy on exempting students who give talks at SMURCHOM from writing final papers. While my students are very motivated by this incentive, an undesirable result of this reward is that some of the best papers never get written. In order to keep up the motivation, I might excuse students who give talks from the essay portion of the final examination.
I find that the research project process can always benefit from tweaking. While I require the use of a primary source in the project, I have found that many students use this source only superficially. In the future, I plan to create an activity in order to get my students to actively engage with their primary sources. Another challenge is helping students find research topics that really inspire them. I have found it especially difficult to help elementary and middle grades education students get excited about a topic.
I certainly intend to continue SMURCHOM, which is to my knowledge the only undergraduate conference in the country devoted to the history of mathematics. I hope that through the RUMC program, other regional undergraduate conferences on the history of mathematics might be established. Overall, I believe that SMURCHOM gives my students a unique undergraduate experience. Please join us in Cullowhee in Spring 2012 to experience SMURCHOM for yourself!
Poster presentation, SMURCHOM V (photo credit: Sloan Evans Despeaux).
References
1. Faires, Doug. "The MAANSF Undergraduate Student Conferences Program." FOCUS 25 (1) (2005): 1819.
2. Mayfield, Betty and Kimberly Tysdal. "A Locally Compact REU in the History of Mathematics: Involving Undergraduates in Research." Loci: Convergence (February 2009). DOI: 10.4169/loci003263.
About the Author
Sloan Evans Despeaux is an associate professor of mathematics at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. Besides teaching a wide range of mathematics courses, she teaches courses in the history of mathematics and an upperlevel perspective on the history of the Scientific Revolution. Her research interests include nineteenthcentury mathematics, mathematicians, and scientific journals in Britain. Her most recent publication is “Mathematics Sent Across the Channel and the Atlantic: NineteenthCentury British Mathematical Contributions to International Scientific Journals” (Annals of Science 65 (1) (2008): 7399) and she has contributed a chapter on Victorian mathematical journals and societies to a forthcoming volume on Victorian mathematics to be published by Oxford University Press.
Download an assignment to help acquaint your history of mathematics students with reliable internet sources, along with a short quiz to help motivate them to explore.
Using the Internet to Conduct Research in the History of Mathematics Assignment
History of Mathematics on the Web Scavenger Hunt Quiz
To read how I use this assignment and quiz in class, please see page 3, "How SMURCHOM Has Changed My History of Mathematics Course."