A little blog about the conference in which Mathemafrica was conceived! This first appeared on the ICTP math blog on the 18th of November 2014.
One of the perks of working in mathematics is that I get to travel the world as part of my job. This time it was Cape Town, South Africa; I flew down there to participate in a workshop on maths `outreach’ activities in Africa. The workshop was held at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) and was organised in partnership with IMAGINARY. Will introduce the organisers in a bit but let me focus on the idea of mathematics outreach for now.
For me, mathematics outreach is an attempt to share mathematical ideas with non-experts in the field. The term non-expert includes a broad spectrum of people stretching from school children to senior citizens. Math-outreach is usually done through exhibitions and the written media but the definition allows for many more forms of communication. Why one would care about such efforts varies from person to person and may change depending on the audience. There is always the diplomatic, politically correct cause, that is, getting more elements of society involved in the mathematics reaps rewards. I guess one can dig up statistics to that support an argument of the form: a mathematically savvy population is a route to economic growth. However, the reason why I am interested in this are a little more selfish. I love mathematics! As with most things we enjoy, we get a warm fuzzy feeling from sharing them with others. It is especially amazing when you strike a chord with somebody. Mathematics outreach gives me a chance to share this passion of mine with the world.
Back to the organisers of the workshop. The AIMS centre in South Africa is part of an expanding network of AIMS centres operating under the Next Einstein Initiative. There are currently five such centres. Each centre has a teaching arm which runs a master’s degree programme, as well as a section devoted to research. They also have a division devoted to community development which, at the moment, focuses on in-job teacher training. IMAGINARY, the other organisers, are a very cool institution; they define themselves as “a platform for open and interactive mathematics”. Their activities range from setting up maths exhibitions around the world to developing fun mathematics software applications. I would highly recommend visiting their website and playing with some of their programs. Better still, if you are at the ICTP, you could mess around with software by IMAGINARY on our maths section touch-screen. Until very recently, IMAGINARY have not organised any events in Africa. This workshop was an attempt to fix this.
Both of these institutions share common goals with our ICTP. Carlo Fonda, from our SciFabLab, and I were meant to represent the ICTP at the workshop. The plan was to run a session in which we give an introduction to 3D-printing mathematical objects at a low cost. We would demonstrate the techniques live using one our 3D-printers. Unfortunately, we had to cancel our part of the workshop because Carlo had some last minute passport related complications.
Fortunately for me, the workshop was very interactive so I didn’t feel left out. It was very different from your standard mathematics conference where the focus is usually on talks; where some people spoke, the others listened and interaction was mainly reserved for coffee breaks and meal times. Here everybody got their hands dirty. We drew up plans for a mathematics exhibition at the, soon to become, AIMS building in Bagamoyo, Tanzania. A web-forum was created to communicate all aspects of mathematics in Africa, including jobs, exhibitions, blog posts. My favourite thing about it is its name, it is called mathemafrica.org. We pooled our mutual knowledge about the status quo of mathematics outreach in Africa and shared tips on writing funding proposals. There was also a session where Marcos Cherinda, a researcher in ethnomathematics based in Mozambique, spoke to us about the mathematics involved in twill weaving. We all had a go at weaving a sphere, with varying degrees of success I must add. A more comprehensive review of these workshops and the others I failed to mention will hopefully be available at the IMAGINARY website (excuse the pun) soon.
All the positive energy coming out of this meeting is all well and good. However, its success can only be measured through the actions stemming from it. Will this exhibition in Tanzania ever happen? Will mathemadrica.org take-off? Only time will tell. We scheduled another AIMS-IMAGINARY workshop to be held in Senegal in October of next year to examine the various outcomes of this meeting. For now, our duty is to make sure that by then these questions have positive answers.