The University Record, October 22, 1997

Math professor receives Presidential Mentoring Award

Robert Megginson, associate professor of mathematics, helps students see the connection between the symmetry of mathematics and Native American beadwork. Here he visits with student tutor Rachel Weir (right) and Telya Mallad. Photo by Bob Kalmbach


By Sally Pobojewski
News and Information Services

Robert Megginson sees the patterns and symmetry of mathematics in Native American beadwork and the laws of probability in the traditional games of his people, the Lakota Sioux. For the past five summers, he's been helping students on the Turtle Mounta in Indian Reservation in North Dakota appreciate the connections between math and their native Ojibwa culture.

Megginson, an associate professor of mathematics, knows from personal experience how role models can help Native American students overcome stereotypes about who can make it in mathematics.

"It's important for young people to see Native Americans succeeding in math and science," Megginson says. In 1992, he developed a series of summer mentoring programs for students living on the Turtle Mountain Reservation. About 75 students participa te in the program every year.

"We emphasize science and mathematics, along with traditional Ojibwa culture," Megginson says. "I try to bring in other mentors, especially women, to show the girls they have career options, too. We set up an e-mail network at the end of the summer, so we can continue the mentoring relationship."

Martha Aliaga, associate professor of statistics, has been a frequent mentor of girls attending the Turtle Mountain program. Last summer, Brooke Lutz, a U-M graduate and Native American of the Odawa tribe, volunteered a week of her vacation time to w ork with Megginson. "Brooke was a wonderful mentor, because she not only earned an undergraduate and master's degree from the College of Engineering, but is also aware of and practices her traditions. In particular, she has been closely involved with th e Ann Arbor Pow-Wow, and has the honor of being head woman dancer for it," he says.

Because of his success with the mentoring program, Megginson recently received the second annual Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring from the National Science Foundation. He was one of 10 individuals an d nine institutions to receive the award this year, which includes a $10,000 grant.

During the school year, Megginson teaches calculus and other mathematics courses and is director of the Undergraduate Math Lab, where he encourages minority students and women to apply for positions as tutors. "We try to put students in contact with others like themselves who have encountered the same problems with science and math," he says. "It is important for everyone to have role models in these areas and to see that people of every background can succeed in them."