The University of Michigan-Flint Holds its 50th Math Field Day

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Dr. Lawrence Kugler (right) photographed in 1968 with colleagues from the UM-Flint mathematics department.

UM-Flint celebrates its 50th annual Math Field Day this Friday, March 3.  The event, sponsored by the mathematics department, is a competition for high school students. Dr. Lawrence Kugler, now retired, held several positions at the university during his career, including Interim Chancellor, Interim Provost, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, professor and chair of the mathematics department. He was a second-year assistant professor of mathematics when he started Math Field Day. He shared his thoughts about the longstanding university event for this Q&A.

How did the first Math Field Day originate?

I had heard about a Math Field Day at Occidental College in California, and wrote to their mathematics department asking if they might give me some ideas about how to start one at UM-Flint. They responded with a big package of materials about all the events, including rules and all the problems they had used at their most recent event. So I just used it all…it was a prefab event!

How has the event evolved over time? Why is it still going strong and one of the university’s longest running events?

To run a second Field Day, I couldn’t write back to Occidental for another free ride!  So we in the department had to concoct all the contest questions. I certainly couldn’t have done it alone. In later years, various members of the department had ideas about expanding the number of events and making organizational changes, all of which have made the Field Day far more interesting and exciting than it was initially. The involvement of the fantastic members of the UM-Flint mathematics department is why it’s still going strong.

How has the event benefited the university? Why should students take advantage of such competitions?

I think the university has benefited by having an example of a day of teamwork: teamwork on the part of the faculty and staff who organize it, and teamwork on the part of students who compete. Students should take advantage of such competitions because it’s fun!

Is there a memory, either general or specific, from the event that you can share to highlight why it is such a unique event?

I remember one year when there was a blizzard the night before the Field Day. The next morning all the Math faculty, staff and student helpers showed up and we wondered if the show would go on. All but two of the student teams got there!  Some of their stories about their efforts to get through the snow were amazing! And, of course, there is the famous yellow jacket… The yellow jacket is a bright plaid yellow sports jacket that I inherited from my father. It isn’t really suitable for wearing as an everyday item of apparel, and I began using it as announcer of the prizes at the end of the day at the event. It is now property of the mathematics department.

A 2015 Math Field Day participant and UM-Flint professor of mathematics Kenneth Schilling, sporting the "yellow jacket."
A 2015 Math Field Day participant and UM-Flint professor of mathematics Kenneth Schilling, sporting the “yellow jacket.”

Robert is a staff writer in the Office of University Relations. Contact him with comments, questions, and story ideas.