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Sostarecz flourishes with College's interdisciplinary approach

Barry McNamara
MONMOUTH, Ill. – There are many reasons why recently promoted professor Michael Sostarecz has flourished at Monmouth College. For one thing, he is a Triad personified.

Years before Monmouth brought its innovative, multidisciplinary Triad approach to topics such as food security and global public health, Sostarecz was exposed to a similar venture at Penn State University.

“Penn State brought in an engineer, a physicist and a mathematician – that kind of sounds like the start of a joke, doesn’t it?,” said Sostarecz, who was promoted to full professor of mathematics at the end of the spring semester. “But they brought them in to study ocean waves. The engineer was tasked with building and running experiments, the physicist with modeling, and the mathematician with running simulations.”

As Sostarecz began graduate school at Penn State in the late 1990s, a professor in that program asked him, “Do you do experiments, or modeling, or simulations?”

“And I said, ‘Yes,’” said Sostarecz. “The projects I like to work on have all three of those components.”

Through the construction of the Center for Science and Business and other academic initiatives such as the Triad Program, Monmouth has moved in a direction that suits Sostarecz perfectly.

“Monmouth has made a big push toward integrated learning and interdisciplinary projects,” said Sostarecz, who was promoted to full professor of mathematics at the end of the spring semester. “I fit really well into that notion. The College is a very, very good fit for me in that regard.”

Before the Center for Science and Business opened in 2013, Sostarecz was part of a plan to bring in “equipment that would build excitement for the building.” That’s how the College came to own a high-speed camera, which Sostarecz has used for a variety of projects, and become one of only two liberal arts college mathematics departments with an experimental lab.

Physics students who were also members of the golf team used the camera, which shoots 1,000 frames per second, for a project involving the aforementioned components of experiments, models and simulations. Similarly, students have thrown water balloons at darts, not only learning those valuable scientific tools but creating some striking photography in the process.

Some of the photos are on display on the third floor of the Center for Science and Business, and two can be seen through Aug. 31 in the Buchanan Center for the Arts’ Security Savings Bank 37th Annual Photography Show.

Teaching chaos

More art was created when Sostarecz took a page out of one of his favorite books, Islands of Truth, which he was introduced to in college.

“It had all these crazy, non-traditional math topics – things like fractals and chaos,” he said. Already a lover of mathematics, he remembers a light bulb going on. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is so cool.’”

So cool, in fact, that Sostarecz has built an entire Reflections course around chaos for the College’s Integrated Studies curriculum. It explores “the butterfly effect” – the idea that a small change in input can have a large change in output, with the specific example of a butterfly flapping its wings eventually leading to a tornado.

As one way to illustrate chaos, Sostarecz and his students used a Plinko board, releasing a ball from the same spot at the same speed a total of 60 times. The different paths the ball took to the bottom of the board are recorded in different colors, and that colorful board now hangs on a wall in his office.

While teaching chaos, Sostarecz has his students reflect on the small changes over the course of their lives that may have led them to Monmouth College and the persons they’ve become.

“Then at the end of the course, I ask them to imagine themselves as the butterfly and how they can have a large effect on the world around them.”

The science of change

While chaos is a non-traditional avenue for his mathematical interests, calculus is a bread-and-butter branch of the discipline. Sostarecz likes to explain it in terms everyone can understand.

“Calculus is the science of how things change,” he said, adding that derivatives are a fundamental tool of calculus.

“Every discipline has its own name for derivatives, for how things are changing in that discipline,” he said. “Reaction rates from chemistry and interest rates from economics are some examples. In physics, you can talk about instantaneous velocity, which is how fast something is moving at a precise moment in time, or average velocity, which is how far it has moved in a given amount of time.”

And that’s where the high-speed camera comes in, as those aforementioned physics students were able to see how far a driven golf ball moved in 1/1000th of a second.

“The high-speed camera measures derivatives for mathematics,” said Sostarecz, “by estimating an instantaneous velocity using the measurement of an average velocity.”

Sostarecz said the camera allows for a unique perspective and a unique experience.

“Monmouth is one of only two liberal arts colleges in the U.S. that has an experimental laboratory in its mathematics department,” said Sostarecz. “Experiments with the high-speed camera provide students a unique perspective to view mathematics and the world around them with examples for the classroom and inspiration for student research projects.”