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Calculus and Congress

Landing a Summer Internship in D.C. Became an Integral Part of Math Major’s Education

When Austin Smith walks through the halls of Congress and passes Vice President Kamala Harris, or senators such as former presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Bernie Sanders, he keeps calm and, well, carries on.

Smith, 18, is a nontraditional University of Idaho student in a nontraditional way.

A product of dual enrollment, Smith began taking high school courses in middle school and college courses his sophomore year. He enrolled at U of I in Winter 2023 as a junior while his former high school classmates prepared to graduate from Coeur d’Alene High.

Once on campus, Smith promptly participated in Pi Day — the math department’s annual integral-solving rodeo while also applying for an internship with Senator Mike Crapo on Capitol Hill.

Smith earned third place in the calculus event and — after being turned down for a Congressional internship as a high school sophomore — was invited to Washington D.C.

The experience confirmed two things. He had chosen his major and minor, math and political science, wisely, and the university in Moscow was a great place to pursue those passions.

“U of I accepted me right away and took all my credits,” Smith said. “All of that just from sending my transcript and a phone call with my advisor; it was just one less thing to worry about.”

Because the U of I Math Department’s online schedule shows exactly when certain classes are offered, Smith was able to map out his remaining semesters online. His advisors accommodated Smith’s goal of graduating within a year.

Young man smiling with glasses near stairwell.
Austin Smith of Coeur d’Alene will be 18 when he graduates from U of I in Spring 2024 with a bachelor’s in mathematics and a minor in political science.

“They wanted to help make that happen,” Smith said. “That attitude turns these meetings from an adversarial clash to a team discussion.”

U of I also had the most affordable pricing, and a great close-to-home location Smith said.

When I see math formulas, I see beautiful logical arguments. Austin Smith, mathematics senior

“Just far enough away that I felt like I could really be independent while also being close enough to see family if I was homesick,” he said.

Smith melded an unusual combination of mathematics and political science, into his portfolio knowing a Congressional internship would provide him with enough credits for a political science minor.

His interest in political science sprouted while he was a dual enrollment student while his love of mathematics flourished early.

“When I see math formulas, I see beautiful logical arguments in them,” Smith said. He skipped two years of math in the sixth grade and took math courses through a dual enrollment program at North Idaho College. It’s also where he was inspired to apply the same logic found in mathematics to papers written for college political science courses. Using linear algebra, he explained the outcome of the Cuban missile crisis.

“There was something very surreal about taking challenging courses at the college level when I was 14 or 15 years old,” Smith said.

While hard science and the study of political ideas, ideologies and institutions appear to be on the opposite side of the academic horizon from mathematics, Smith has already combined them in his role as a Congressional aide.

As part of the staff in Sen. Crapo’s office, Smith works on mathematical models to address governmental questions.

He wasn’t asked to do it, he said. He just likes the thought experiment.

“I love the formulaic part of mathematics, and the theoretical part that addresses whether an argument is sound or has a flaw — is it a fallacy?” he said.

He addresses questions from the impacts of increasing the size of the houses of Congress to the influences of gerrymandering.

“I also apply it to policy research; is this a good idea or bad idea based on the logical thought process,” he said.

Smith said he viewed a mathematics career path more seriously after attending a math camp at U of I as a high school junior where his team won the camp competition.

“It was a big moment,” Smith said. “It was the first time that I thought, ‘Maybe this can be more than a hobby.’”

Earning third place at Pi Day as an 17-year-old in Spring ’23 reaffirmed his commitment to his major.

“I didn’t plan on winning,” he said. “Mostly I just wanted the free pie and the ability to network with some fellow STEM majors.”

He indulged in key lime pie and came to a comparative conclusion.

“In general, I don’t think anything beats a slice of warm apple pie topped by a scoop of vanilla ice cream,” he said.

Article by Ralph Bartholdt, University Communications

Photos by Melissa Hartley, University Creative Services

Published in September 2023

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