How to draw your kids to math
– Medal winners speak of influence of teachers, books and family
Hyderabad, Aug. 22: Parents mortified by the thought of math tormenting their children may do well to drop their calculators and tune in to this southern city.
Daniel Spielman, who has won a top award in mathematics, links his early passion for the subject to lessons from a schoolteacher who showed him how advanced math could also be fun.
Spielman is among the stars at the International Congress of Mathematicians 2010 here who provide fleeting glimpses of what motivated them to pursue the discipline — great teachers, popular books and influences at home.
“Some teachers, some books … reading about the lives of great mathematicians was an inspiration,” said Cedric Villani, the 36-year-old Frenchman who is this year’s youngest recipient of the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in the field.
Stanislav Smirnov, a Russian mathematician at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, and another Fields Medal winner this year, recalls that when he was 11, he had joined a Russian system that exposed children to advanced math through gifted teachers.
Such recollections as well as presentations of other delegates at the congress may hold a lesson for parents, teachers and students — the drive to score marks may be drawing even students with talent away from mathematics.
“There’s a hidden beauty in mathematics, but most teachers fail to convey this to their students,” said Ambat Vijaykumar, a professor of mathematics at the Cochin University of Science and Technology, Kochi.
“Patterns in a field of mathematics called fractal geometry are also observed in the distribution of galaxies in the universe. A series of numbers known as the Fibonacci sequence may be seen in the distribution of leaves of pineapple trees,” he said.
Mathematics education specialists caution that bright students might turn away from the subject because of the tension between the pursuit of high scores and the need to take time to appreciate connections between math and the natural world.
“(The subject) can be abstract and may not be easy for students. As long as there’s this heavy emphasis on top performance in exams, most students will prepare to score well rather than also attempt to appreciate the beauty of math,” said Jill Adler from the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa. “But we don’t know how else to screen students (for high performance) other than through exams,” she said.
It’s an irony that mathematicians are struggling to combat.
At a congress session on education, a mathematician from Chile said special strategies would be needed to fight the psychological blocks or social prejudices that appear to be keeping students away from mathematics.
“No one can learn with fear,” said Monica del Pilar Canales-Chacon from the Institute of Mathematics at the Universidad Austral de Chile. In a presentation at the congress, Canales-Chacon has called for changes in teaching strategies.
“We cannot go on teaching-learning the same stuff taught-learnt when there were no pocket calculators and no Internet,” she told The Telegraph. “New results from the past 25 years and their applications need to be incorporated into the curricula.”
The trend of students turning away from mathematics and moving towards engineering or management streams, Cochin University’s Vijaykumar said, appears to be a part of a general flow away from the pure sciences.
But not everyone appears worried. International Mathematical Union president Laszlo Lovasz, who solved a big mathematics problem when he was only 17, says the subject continues to draw talent — although interest may vary across countries.
Lovasz said he saw some similarities between mathematics and music.
“You need a special talent for music but it doesn’t mean you cannot enjoy music. It can be appreciated even by those who don’t create it. Just as in music, there will be some who’ll find mathematics so engrossing it doesn’t matter what happens around them. They’ll continue to address the challenges that lie in mathematics.”