Saturday, November 21, 2009

Traveling Academics

Today my Alma mater hosted a conference for undergraduate research in mathematics and computer science. Since that school is a scant two and a half hour drive from our school, my colleague (and partner in crime in the department) spread word and attempted to find interested students to present at the conference. In the end, no students from our department managed to get a paper submitted in time, but three students were interested in going to the conference anyway. I was interested too, but with five of us going, that's a bit more than can be comfortably squeezed into one car for 2.5 hours, even if my car is fairly roomy. So my colleague and I debated whether or not to reserve a van through the university. We both pretty much agreed that the odds favored at least one of the students dropping out before the trip, but she decided (wisely, I think) to reserve a van anyway.

On Thursday, one of the students dropped out of the trip. So we canceled the van and planned to go in my car.

We planned on leaving about 6 am to allow enough time to arrive. One of the two students showed up at 6 am, and we finally gave up trying to find the other around 6:30 and hit the road. When we were about 15 miles outside of town my colleague got a call on her cell phone confirming that the student had indeed overslept, and in fact had just woken up. So in the end the trip with three students became a trip with one. So the van was definitely not needed, just as we suspected. It remains to be seen if it was canceled early enough that we will not be charged for it.

My colleague performed admirably when tasked with keeping me awake on the drive into Ohio, so we arrived without my getting my morning jolt of adrenalin by driving off the road or something. We even had enough time to get settled before the first talk started.

The talks were lovely and interesting. A few were in fields that went completely over my head. I have found in those cases that it is much easier to remain awake and alert looking if one stops trying to follow a talk that sounds like gobbledygook and instead just thinks about other things. Like, for instance, what I was going to write about tonight. This paragraph, for example.

But other talks were understandable and interesting. Even many of the CS talks I found fairly accessible, which was nice. The student who actually came was a CS student (but is also fairly mathy), and he seemed very charged up about a number of the topics, so I'm very glad he got a chance to come. He's actually about to graduate and plans to head off to grad school, so who knows what some of these ideas could inspire him to look into.

An invited speaker talked about art created via operations research, including such interesting projects as Obaminoes (which involved using 44 complete sets of dominoes to make a pretty darn good pictures of our 44th president). It was a neat talk, and the various art projects he'd worked on through operations research were pretty cool.

The student talks covered a wide variety of topics, including dissecting regular polygons into squares, simulating a robot, and solving sudoku and ken ken puzzles using some some algebraic geometry tools. All of the students did a great job. We need to get some students coming out and presenting at this thing.

Besides, our students might not have so far to travel next time. The hosts of the conference indicated they needed a host institution for next year, and my colleague and I talked to them about the possibility. It's a reasonably small conference and sounds like it might be manageable, so we are going to be looking into what resources we have and what support we might get if we wanted to try and host next year. It sounds like a lot of fun in addition to being enough work to make us truly frantic.

We briefly checked out the campus after the talks, grabbed some dinner, and headed home. On the drive, the three of us ended up in a light and fluffy discussion about education, history, social trends, biological engineering, the nature of knowledge, computability, the limits of human thought, and what constituted "writing down" or storing information. You know: the easy stuff. It was almost like being back in college again.

All in all a good day, although it was fairly tiring. And there goes Saturday. Tomorrow of course is Sunday, which means I have to get on the ball on getting ready for the next week, which thankfully only includes two days before Thanksgiving break.

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