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MESH institute students calculate sheep population for local farmer

This summer, some students stayed awake in class counting sheep.

Twenty-two participants in the Mathematics Engineering Science Hybrids (Project MESH) Math and Biology institute calculated a population growth problem involving sheep for a local farmer during their final days of class. The problem was presented to Dave Finston, professor of mathematical sciences at New Mexico State University, by his longtime friend Dr. Robert Woody who is a local sheep rancher, pistachio farmer and pediatric neurologist. He wanted to know at what rate he could expect his female sheep population to grow and how it would affect his income.

"I wanted to be able to weigh the costs of caring for the female sheep versus selling them or the males. I find this (information) very useful," he said upon hearing the class's results Thursday, July 31, at a luncheon seminar he sponsored.

The MESH class was made up of local area high school students, graduate students and middle and high school teachers who worked on the problem over the course of three days guided by the institute instructors. They applied the skills they learned during the Math and Biology: Population Change Institute to come up with a flexible Excel spreadsheet and formulas for Woody to study and take back to his farm in Chaparral, N.M.

"To have a concrete context to put to use was something we were very grateful for," said Mary Ballyk, associate professor of mathematics at the College of Arts and Sciences. The class worked on similar population problems earlier in the term involving algebraic equations, she said.

"We appreciated the problem. It came at just the right time," said Brook Milligan, professor of biology at the college of arts and sciences and one of the program's instructors. What the class came up with was a starting point for Woody as he continues his agriculture economic studies - something used frequently by farmers to factor growth in population and the cost to care for each of their animals, he said.

On the last day of class, feedback about the program from students and teachers was positive. "I feel like I got a head start on math for next year," said Jessica Aguirre, a Las Cruces High School sophomore who said one day she might pursue a career in engineering.

"I really found it interesting to see the relationship between biology and mathematics and will be applying it to my teaching. I wish the program was continuing because it's a good opportunity for everyone involved," said Jennifer Rashé, biology teacher at Oñate High School.

This class was the final of four MESH institutes that began last summer. In past institutes, other topics studied included hydraulic engineering, math and chemistry related to phase transitions and modern physics (i.e. relativity). This program funded by the U.S. Department of Education coincides with a recent state mandate requiring high school graduates from 2009 on to take an online course, dual-credit or advanced placement (AP) class prior to graduation.

"MESH is designed for the student who is not likely to take an AP course yet might want to pursue a career in science or math one day," Finston said. Two of the four online courses created as a result of this program grant are now available for NMSU credit - Math 151 (cross-listed as Civil Engineering 141) and Math 152 (cross-listed as Chemistry 152). The other two courses are projected to start in the fall and spring, he said.