UP to host online event to celebrate International Day of Mathematics on 14 March

Posted on March 08, 2021

The University of Pretoria’s (UP) Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics is set to host a day of online events in celebration of the International Day of Mathematics (IDM) on 14 March. The events – which will include lectures, a panel discussion and online games – will be streamed live on UP’s YouTube channel.

Each year on 14 March, countries are invited to celebrate the International Day of Mathematics by participating in activities for students and the general public in schools, museums, libraries and other spaces, with events aimed at promoting the study and understanding of mathematics in society. The International Day of Mathematics project is led by the International Mathematical Union with the support of international and regional organisations across the world.

Dr Eder Kikianty and Dr Miek Messerschmidt, senior lecturers from UP’s Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics who are organising the UP IDM event, explained that this year’s IDM theme is ‘Mathematics for a Better World’.

“In some societies there tends to be a fear of mathematics among children, and this could be due to rejection by teachers when they make mistakes in their maths lessons. Typically, mathematics is presented as a perfect theory where there are only right or wrong answers,” they said.

Furthermore, in mathematics, right answers are rewarded and wrong answers are punished. “We should not discourage children or students from making mistakes. Mistakes are unavoidable. Rather, encourage them to always try, and then to think very critically about the answers that are obtained, be they right or wrong. Being able to recognise and understand one’s own errors when they occur is a far more important skill for a human to acquire than getting the right answer by blind rote,” they explained.

South African learners do not tend to perform well in the ‘Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study’ (TIMSS), which objectively measures the aptitude in mathematics of grade 4 and grade 8 (grade 9 in South Africa) learners worldwide. Compared with the performance statistics of other countries participating in TIMSS, “there is certainly much room for improvement in mathematics education in South Africa. Some would say that South Africa’s performance in TIMSS is indicative of a crisis in our education system.”

‘Even if you do not use mathematics in your daily life, you are still very much affected by it’

A partial goal of UP’s International Day of Mathematics event is to “ignite a healthy and sober discussion about this crisis. We must admit that the problem is multifaceted. If the solution were obvious, the problem would not exist. There exists scientific literature which show a positive correlation between a country’s economic indicators, like per capita GDP, and its students’ objectively-measured academic performance. It is quite tempting to hypothesise a positive feedback loop existing between the two, but the reality is certainly more complicated.”

They explain that it is important for all humans to have a basic understanding of the scientific method and the role of mathematics within it. “Having just a very basic understanding of the scientific method along with how mathematics and statistics are used in science gives one confidence in making life and business decisions. At its worst, not understanding how the scientific method and mathematics works potentially exposes oneself to avoidable harm.” 

According to Dr Kikianty and Dr Messerschmidt, “Even if you do not actively use the mathematics previously taught to you in your daily life, you are still very much affected by mathematics; for example, in electronic communication, banking, and in the functioning complex logistical networks.” 

The International Day for Mathematics website indicates that “Mathematics is central to the efficient organisation of societies for the benefit of all citizens.”

The UP event is targeted at anyone who has a general interest in mathematics. Speakers include UP’s Professor Jacek Banasiak, the Department of Science and Technology/National Research Foundation/South African Research Chair Initiative Chair in Mathematical Models and Methods in Biosciences and Bioengineering. He will speak on ‘Applied Mathematics, past, present and future’. UP’s Professor James Raftery, an internationally renowned mathematician whose research focuses on algebra, logic and the interface between them, will speak on ‘Logic and Mathematical Discovery’. He won the South African Mathematical Society’s Award for Research Distinction in 2014.

The lectures will be followed by a panel discussion on ‘Mathematics in South Africa and in general’.

The online event will be live-streamed from 10am on Sunday 14 March. Click here to see the full programme and attend the event.

- Author Primarashni Gower

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