I’ve spent this last week helping with the first-ever Ethiopian math camp, hosted by the math department at Bahir Dar university. As with the Maseno math camp, we focused on giving activity-based sessions, teaching interesting math topics outside of the standard curriculum. The intention is to boost student interest in maths and to expose some teachers to different ways of thinking about mathematics. The big difference between the Maseno and BDU camps is that the students in Ethiopia are mainly Amharic speakers, with maybe a couple years of learning English under their belt. This makes it essential to build up and utilize the local staff to a degree that we aren’t forced to in Maseno. Luckily, the local staff is bright, imaginative, and ready to try new things. On the whole, it was a fantastic first attempt.
We gave thirty-ish sessions, divided into five topic areas: geometry, scientific research, card tricks, history of numbers, and ‘rules.’ I was a few days late arriving at the planning week, due to some medical exams I needed to get done in Addis, and so was mainly designing the card trick sessions. I also did a lot with the geometry group and gave a session each on cryptography and complex numbers.
The card tricks theme was suggested by Emily Hobbs. It demonstrated the spinning of mathematical ideas and formula-building (with modular arithmetic!) out of something seemingly non-mathematical. I also used the sessions to try to drill in the idea that math is about a) observing patterns, and b) then explaining/proving that these observed patterns are as you see them. This viewpoint frees math from being exclusively about numbers and calculation, and instead focuses the students on problem solving and deduction. (In the problem-solver vs theory-building dichotomy in the philosophy of mathematics, this viewpoint falls pretty heavily on the problem-solving side.) Along the way, we developed some formulae for what happens to cards when you reverse or cut the deck, had some applications of modular arithmetic, and thought about the connection between randomness and information (or lack thereof).
For next year, we’re looking at possibly having camps in Uganda and Ghana as well as Bahir Dar and Maseno. We’re also kind of expecting that the Bahir Dar camp may be replicated in Ethiopia fairly soon. On the whole, it means that we’re quickly going to get to a place of having more camps than we have international volunteer support, which is great. But it means we need to think hard about ways to build up the local staff to where they can be generating content independently. Within the Maseno math camp, most of our content generation happens during the planning week just before the camp: this is perfect for a far-flung group of international volunteers who read widely and have a decent grounding in activity-based pedagogy. But for the staff at most African universities, there’s typically little exposure to the kinds of recreational mathematics that we typically turn into good sessions, and even less exposure to activity-based methods. For many teachers and lecturers, the math camp will be the most radical application of activity-oriented teaching they’ve encountered. A one-week planning period isn’t enough to get them fully oriented to the teaching methods or to trawl literature for a full week’s worth of material and develop it into sessions: the international volunteers, with a lot more experience, are able to do this quickly.
To get local lecturers and teachers to the point of running independent math camps, then, we need to expose them to more recreational math (the raw material for sessions), and give them more practice in designing and running sessions. We discussed starting math clubs around Bahir Dar; these will need some new content each week. We’ve agreed to supply twelve or thirteen weeks worth of content for the clubs to get started. This gives a perfect amount of time for a reading seminar to work through some material and start developing it into things for the math clubs to do once they run out of pre-made material. David is planning a trip to Bahir Dar in January or February for putting together more material, but some further reading on the part of the local team could go a long way.
Another possibility is a longer workshop before the camp next summer; this can be used for further content generation and for refining content created by the local team, as well as doing initial planning for the math camp.
I’m pretty excited about working in Ethiopia; in addition to the great coffee and excellent food, the people I’ve worked with, students and staff, have been exceptional. At the close of the camp, I told the assembled group that if they are Ethiopia’s future, then the future looks very bright.