Many students face lots of problems with math, and to swipe a quote from movie critic Jack Croll on the 1979 film “Alien,” – math will “scare the peanuts out of your M&Ms.”

That kind of math fright prompted USC Aiken psychology professors Dr. Keri Weed and Dr. Laura Jelson-Swain to explore the issue in the form of an undergraduate research project this summer.

“We're looking at what's going on in the brain while thinking about numbers,” Weed said. “So many students have such terrible problems in math, and we have a high failure rate in our introductory math class.”

This project is especially intriguing: Two USCA students – Haley Boyd and Efeoluwa Ekundayo – have been joined by two University of Wisconsin-Stout students for the study.

“I just took a research methods class,” Boyd said on Monday, the first day of the project. “This is a really good opportunity to get more experience.”

Last week, Weed and Jelson-Swain worked with the students to determine the project's design – what they wanted to measure and how to accomplish that task. They began the formal assessments on Monday with volunteers; the full project will continue through June 27.

“Our students are getting well-trained in how to administer math tests and to see what's going on in how people think about numbers,” said Weed.

The researchers are literally studying brain waves. They see how math anxiety is related to how the brain processes numbers.

The performance may not be confined to capability. People may be using more or less energy, and that's not clear to the researchers, because the test subjects may be withdrawing from the test.

Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001.