The third annual Maseno math camp ran in the third week of August; it’s a bit hard to believe that we’re up to three already!
The week started with a great talk from Rejoyce Gavhi, a South African mathematician who just finished a postdoc in Canada, and who is now starting a new job with AIMS:Sec. She talked about the challenges she overcame in pursuing mathematics as a woman from Africa, and was quite inspirational for everyone involved.
As usual, we divided this year’s camp up into five ‘themes.’ The themes this year were programming, modelling, geometry, combinatorics, and code-breaking. I mainly helped put together the combinatorics section with Ingrid Mostert (from AIMS:Sec) and Santiago Borio, a Geogebra virtuoso who teaches school in London; the sessions were about the bijection between subsets and lattice paths, and seeing the binomial coefficients from different perspectives. Chris Clarke put together some great sessions in the modelling section (for example, using massively multi-player dice-games to model the spread of a disease in a population). The programming section focused on building flow charts to describe algorithms, which was a pretty different tack than we’d previously considered, and I think a good one. I never really think of flow charts when I program, but breaking a process down into some ‘decision points’ and considering all possible outcomes is quite useful as a programmer. Approaching the process via flow charts is a great way to organize that process in a visual way.
I’m currently visiting Bahir Dar University, in Ethiopia. It was a natural place to visit while Kenya is out-of-session for their elections. Abebe Regassa, a lecturer here, came to Maseno last August for the maths camp, and will be co-facilitating the first Ethiopian maths camp this July with Berie Getie.
The math department here is very exciting to be in contact with. The department is large (now at about 50 staff), has a mandate to get research groups going, and has given Abebe and Berie reduced teaching loads to coordinate outreach activities. They’re actually already doing a fantastic job, by the accounts I’ve heard thus far.
One outreach project is the Outreach Program for Talented Students. This project has run for two years, funded thus far by the Gelfand Family Charitable Trust, though it will be moving to Univesity funding soon. The project puts on a science-and-technology camp for 450 elite students. This year, there will be 300 students from schools around Bahir Dar, and 150 from all over the country. The camp runs for 40 days(!) and uses a team-teaching model (one university lecturer, one secondary teacher, and a lab assistant for each class of 30 students). After 15 days of common curriculum, the camp is split into two streams, one focused on general science topics, and the other focused on ICT and electronics. At the end, 45 students are selected from the 450 to continue working with the Bahir Dar university staff on interesting projects. (There’s a 62-page report on the program here.)
The term has come to a close, finishing the first half of my Fulbright year, which provides a bit of time to look back over what I’ve done, what’s worked well, and what’s worked less well. A big part of the plan for the first time was to try out the existing structures, get to know what’s going on in the university, and figure out interesting ways forward that might work in the local context. There were a lot of failures this term, places where things didn’t work as expected, where it’s clear that things need to happen differently next time around. So if this post sounds bleak in some ways, rest assured that I’m already working hard on projects for next term that will try to get around these difficulties in one way or another.
Despite my mandate to work on electronic education, I felt it was very important to teach a face-to-face course in order to better understand the undergraduate students and their context. To that end, I co-taught Foundations of Mathematics with David Stern.
The course went reasonably well, but has definitely made me consider the degree of work necessary to really address the problems in the education system. We were working with first-year students, which is ideal in many ways. It’s easier to do something revolutionary with first-years, simply because they haven’t lowered their expectations too far yet. (This was true even when I was teaching at the University of California; the first-years are a lot more open to non-traditional techniques, simply because they expect University to be different from secondary.) Continue reading →
At the main maths camp this year, we had five different topic areas that we structured the camp around. All of them used computers in a big way, except one: Programming. The justification for this was that we had really nice, user-friendly programs for illustrating ideas in statistics, geometry, and so on, but actually throwing the students into a programming environment would almost certainly be too overwhelming. A significant number of the students had never touched a computer before, and really taking them into a code environment seemed a bit of a stretch for people still figuring out the idea of a right-click.
That’s not to say that good computer tools don’t exist; just that we haven’t managed to review them yet. (MIT’s Scratch, for example, looks well worth checking out.) Furthermore, given the time-scale we were working on, I think there was a lot of value in separating the programming concepts from the physical object of the computer. This makes the concepts available in a larger context than the computer, which, as a maths camp, we were eager to do. The idea of setting some basic rules from which we can extrapolate is a basic idea of mathematics. Getting across the idea of the need for precision was also of key importance.
This weekend we ran four mini-maths camps! These are half-day events held at high schools, which give a sort of introduction to the kinds of things that we do at the main maths camp in August at Maseno. On this particular trip, we were partnered with the Elewana Project, which works directly with a number of schools in the area; they mainly bring in students from the US during the summer to work with students, though they are beginning to do some two-week camps aimed at improving educational outcomes for secondary students.
The upshot on this particular trip was that the schools we visited had decently-maintained computer labs, thanks to Elewana’s ongoing efforts with the schools. The schools also have student computer clubs, which allows students to have regular access to their computers. As such, our program for the camps were focused on:
Getting across the basic idea that mathematics is about understanding and applying a system of rules, and
Getting a little bit of familiarity with the software, so that the students can explore and learn more after we’ve left.
There’s still no foreseeable end to the teacher and lecturer’s strike (in fact, the doctors are joining in, too, now), though I’m assured that there is to be a meeting on Monday to try to negotiate an end. As such, we’ve been running lots of errands in the downtime… And in-between work, we’ve been eating healthy amounts of ice-cream and playing a lot of Dominion!
I worked a couple summers at Camp Winnebago, near Augusta, Maine. (Founded 1919, long before the car was a thing!) One of the great things about Winnebago was that they had some thirty camp songs, one for every occasion, mostly written in the 40’s I think. The most sticky of the bunch was ‘Goodnight Winnebago,’ which the entire camp would sing every night before bed; it’s a kind of theme song for the camp. (And a good lullabye for getting a pack of kids ready to chill out for the night!)
We’ve been thinking for most of the last year that it would be great to have a theme for the maths camp. And after nothing happening on it for many months, I wrote a bunch of lyrics the last night of camp and performed it (with some predictable hiccups) at the closing ceremony and then again at the final assembly, before we sent all the students home.
Yesterday we managed to round up a bunch of undergrads in the Maseno music program and work the song up a bit more. The students were really creative and great to work with; I absolutely cannot imagine getting something like this together in just a day back in Toronto. Here’s the last recording of the day!
I’ve been meaning to write a bit about how the math camp journal system eventually worked, so I suppose I’ll do so now! (You can see the finished product here, here, here, and here.) I tried a couple things, but mainly relied on ImageMagick and the Python xmlrpc library written by Max Cutler. In fact, a very nice moment mid-week involved shooting emails back and forth at 3am (Kenya time) with Max trying to figure out what was going wrong on my end. (You’re not really developing until you’re talking to the people who wrote your libraries, I always say!) In any case, Max was very helpful, as was his library.
So. The system ran as follows:
The students wrote journal entries describing their math camp experience each day.
At morning assembly, one of the coordinators, usually Jeff, would photograph all of the journal entries that were handed in.
I would then run an ImageMagick script, which would automatically crop, resize and adjust the color levels on the pictures of the journal entries.
We would rename each file (like IMG-000412.JPG) to include the student’s name (like Tom_Denton.jpg), with underscores between the parts of the name. Also, I would _try_ to rotate each image to upright, but my image-viewing programs seem to handle rotations in funny ways. (Thus, some of the journal entries are sideways on the blog. Urg,) More on that below.
A short python script would then do the rest of the work. Each picture was uploaded automatically (using xmlrpc) to the WordPress site, and the script would then generate a bunch of html to form the body of the post.
I did mean to post a few more times in the week about how the camp was going, but somehow just didn’t find the time… On Tuesday and Thursday both I taught six sessions (and had a nice scratchy throat by the end of the day), and had done quite a lot of tech-type work, which I’ll be writing a later post on. The output of the automatic journal-upload system can be seen here; I thought it ended up being a good demonstration of the Power of Linux (and Python)!