Geese swim in the lake, with a math equation trailing behind them

On campus, math is a constant

April 28, 2023

Campus Life

For UR mathematics professor Michael Kerckhove, math is all around. And a big part of his strategy as an educator is encouraging students to think about the math they see every day.

For example: geese and basketball games.

“Imagine a stadium wave at Robins Center,” Kerckhove said. “To one side of the wave crest, the people’s arms are moving up. To the other side, they’re moving down as they return to their seats.”

This wave form is a calculus phenomenon, Kerckhove said, in that it involves slopes, velocity, and rates of change. And it’s similar to the ripples that a goose leaves behind on the surface of Westhampton Lake.

“When you look at the wake, that’s a series of traveling waves,” he said. “Each ripple by itself is like a stadium wave, because it keeps its shape and moves backwards, relative to the goose.”

For these waves it's gravity, rather than the stadium wave participants, that want to restore a flat surface to the lake. And that introduces more math.

“The interesting observation here is that the angle from the goose to the trailing waves is constant at 19 degrees, 28 minutes,” Kerckhove said. “That’s the same whether it’s a goose or a boat.”

For Kerckhove, anything on campus can trigger such a discussion — for instance, the mathematical principles behind Boatwright Tower.

“That’s structural engineering,” Kerckhove says. “You have to figure out how to distribute the weight. It’s more of a physics problem, really.”

How about a baseball game at Pitt Field?

“Oh, I remember an interesting calculus problem here,” he says. “When someone gets a hit and runs to first base, then how fast is the distance changing between the runner and second base? Make a triangle out of the runner, first base, and second base and you can calculate that.”

Kerckhove says he frequently helps students make connections between advanced concepts and everyday life: “It’s a real source of joy for me.”