Infusing Confidence in Undergraduate Researchers

Photo by Brandon Parigo, Division of Strategic Marketing and Communications

EUReka Math Course Researched Kansas City Water Cutoffs

Experiences in Undergraduate Research, or EUReka classes, play a critical role in the undergraduate curriculum at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The university takes advantage of its urban location to offer numerous opportunities for students at all levels to gain hands-on research experience that also benefits neighboring communities.

EUReka classes are offered in various disciplines and departments including biology, music, creative writing and mathematics. EUReka classes provide high-impact learning experiences rather than traditional lecture-based instruction.

“EUReka courses in mathematics give students the basic tools, vision and experiences they need for analyzing problems, modeling them and providing plausible solutions,” said Dr. Majid Bani- Yaghoub, assistant professor in applied mathematics. During the spring 2017 semester, students in Dr. Bani’s Math 206 class – Brief Calculus & Matrix Algebra – helped a filmmaker analyze geographic patterns for water-service cutoffs in the city’s 60 different zip codes.

Filmmaker Michael Price contacted the UMKC Department of Mathematics looking for help analyzing the potential correlations between water cutoffs and the income levels in Kansas City from 2008 to 2016. The task matched up well with the Math 206 curriculum. Thus, nearly 40  students separated into groups to delve into a research project that would eventually be featured in Kansas City Public Television’s “Public Works – Water Rates and Rivers” documentary.

“By dividing the zip codes among Math 206 students and providing them training on curve fitting and data analysis, the students were able to put together the pieces of the puzzle and get the main picture,” said Dr. Bani. “Over the past eight years there have been four zip codes that have always been low-income with high rates of water cutoffs.” On the other hand, high-income zip codes experienced minimum water cutoffs within the same timeframe.

Students also found that 2016 was the worst year for the water crisis, with a spike of 21,637 water cutoffs in Kansas City, Missouri (see the final KC water report for more details).

“This research experience has made me more aware of what I want to do,” said Deonte Minor, junior, business administration. “I used to tell people that I want to go into consumer behavior, but that was before I knew that market research is what I really wanted to do.”

Dr. Bani said that although scientific contributions of EUReka projects are often limited, exploring and analyzing various case scenarios by a large number of students can lead to a comprehensive body of information that can be scientifically valuable.

“The application of mathematics and statistics in business and finance has gained worldwide recognition. Mathematical models have also been frequently used as predictive tools in economics and related fields,” said Dr. Bani. “Therefore, Math 206 -provides students with the research methods that are widely accepted in economics.”

In the instance of the KC Water project, technology also played a key role. Students used Microsoft Excel to calculate many of the curve fitting and data analysis. Dr. Bani said that while technology may give students the result, understanding the underlying process is a key part of EUReka courses.

EUReka courses change the student’s perspective on research. Before taking a EUReka course, many students have the misconception that research is done by a professor in a chemistry or physics lab and they are reproducing what the professor is doing. But by the end of the semester in a EUReka class, students have learned to look at other ways to solve problems; to think outside the box.

“That barrier in their minds is gone. They’ve been exposed to research and scientifically looking at problems. Thanks to the director of the undergraduate research, Dr. Jane Greer, for initiating the idea of EUReka classes at UMKC,” said Dr. Bani, whose class comes highly recommended.

“Students who are visual learners like myself should take this course with Dr. Bani,” said Minor. “Students should know that going to class is important, and Dr. Bani does a great job at making calculus relevant to real world experiences rather than throwing a ton of formulas at your face, and telling you to solve them.” Minor said that while Math 206 can be challenging for some, Dr. Bani gives students the tools to succeed. Likewise, Dr. Bani enjoys teaching the class, noting that the class discussions were excellent and students were fully engaged with the project.

“I frequently observed that even after class, students were sticking around to work together on the project,” said Dr. Bani.

“I did not realize that a calculus class would expand my critical thinking skills, and that would transfer to other classes that I am taking,” said Minor.

Dr. Bani said there are opportunities in the works for his math students to conduct more community-based research.