'Everybody can do maths!'

Mico pushes for more interest in subject

Associate Editor — Features

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

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LOCAL mathematicians pushing for deeper interest in and uptake of the subject argue that the field is more relevant to daily life than many people realise.

Mathematics, they say, forms the basis of such routine tasks as telling time, driving, shopping, and doing the laundry and as such, the fear and anxiety which often accompany the subject is unwarranted.

“We say we can't do maths and we don't understand it, but it's not really true… Most of us have enough mathematical appreciation to carry out our ordinary everyday experiences,” says dean of the Faculty of Science and Technology at The Mico University College Dr Albert Benjamin.

“We can all count, we can all add, we can all subtract, we can all divide — those are the four operations of maths. We can understand what it means when we say 70 per cent of the constituency is going to vote for such and such a person. We can understand when I say, 'The debt-to-GDP ratio which used to be 140 per cent is now 96 per cent'. Ninety-six sounds like a lower number but we know that it is a positive direction,” he explained.

Far from an oversimplification of the facts, Benjamin reasoned that his argument describes the gateway that mathematics provides.

“Teachers and parents should not accept the sense that maths is something 'over there'. It is part of the ordinary things you do every day, for example, if you want to estimate something bigger, smaller, heavier, or lighter.

“If, however, you want to move into an occupation that is heavily mathematical, then, as with any other field, you have to get a deeper understanding, so in comes the calculus and the trigonometry, etc. Don't shut down the gateway by saying you're afraid of it because most of us can count, we can do the operations and talk about percentages and so on. There's nothing to be afraid of,” Benjamin continued.

Dr Benjamin is chair of the committee organising the university college's International Mathematics Teaching Summit, which got under way at the Jamaica Pegasus yesterday. The summit, the first-of-its kind in the island according to Mico, is being executed in partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank, Plymouth University in the US, and a litany of corporate sponsors. The theme of the three-day event is 'Mathematics for Sustainable Economic Growth and Job Creation'.

The organisers are hoping that the summit will generate nationwide conversations about the importance of mathematics to jobs of the future, to identify reasons for widely held dispositions of fear and anxiety towards the subject with a view to demystifying it, and share best practices with teachers of the subject.

The summit is the brainchild of pro-chancellor of The Mico University College Professor Neville Ying, and was predicated on data from the national Labour Market Survey of 2017, which showed that 55 per cent of emerging jobs will be in ICT-related fields.

A key feature of the summit will be an award ceremony for the Mico University College-National Commercial Bank Mathematics Innovation Competition, which has attracted 87 primary schools, 72 high schools, and eight tertiary institutions.

The competition, Mico said, is designed to cultivate creativity and innovation in the teaching and learning of mathematics, and to validate student-brought knowledge to the learning space.

The Mico team, which spoke with the Jamaica Observer — Dr Benjamin, Professor Ying and director of alumni development Sharon Wolfe — said further that outside of strict mathematical concepts and the occupational ICT space, the subject imparts several values important for operating successfully in the 21st century. Among those to which they referred were perseverance, teamwork, discipline, work ethic, and people skills.

“Maths makes you more confident, it gives you the freedom to make decisions, it propels you into the future with the skills imparted, and it rewires your brain to think critically,” Wolfe said.

“We need to understand where this fear came from and learn to enjoy and embrace mathematics and see how relevant it is for every single thing that we do,” she continued.

For Benjamin, the underlying premise is that mathematics either opens opportunities or it locks one out of the economy.

“It's something that everybody has to embrace, and whereas you have persons who will say, 'I can't do maths', you won't have them say they can't read. So a part of what we have to get away from is the fear of mathematics or the anxiety surrounding mathematics because it is essential for you to enter into the economy and if you don't have it, you're locked out. So to tell yourself that you have an option is a mistake .

“We have to stop saying to ourselves and being comfortable with saying that we cannot do mathematics,” Dr Benjamin stressed.

The Mico, which celebrates its 183rd anniversary this year, trains some 60 per cent of the teachers in the island.

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