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Fun With Numbers

ICTP mathematicians treat young students to the magic of math

ICTP PhD student Khadim Mbacke War (left) at a math exhibit in Senegal
ICTP PhD student Khadim Mbacke War (left) at a math exhibit in Senegal

29/02/2016 - Trieste

It's not every day that a mathematician gets treated like a rock star, so when it happens it's memorable. This was a highlight for ICTP-SISSA PhD student Khadim Mbacke War during a recent mathematics outreach program at a high school in Senegal: as he and the other presenters were leaving the school after a day of workshops, they were stopped repeatedly by students asking more questions and wanting to take pictures. "They love science there, they did not want us to go," War smiles. 

That enthusiasm was the goal of a joint effort by the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) and Imaginary, an organization of math enthusiasts that helps organize math events all over the world. Their AIMS-Imaginary Senegal program showcased interactive hands-on and visual tools to spark interest in mathematics in secondary-school students. Held in Mbour in November 2015, the tour was a combination of exhibitions and workshops, with professional mathematicians sharing their excitement about math.

The exhibitions, which promoted a playful approach to mathematics, reached more than 500 students and their teachers. AIMS-Senegal master's students were trained as volunteers to run the exhibits, which included 3D presentations, mathematical riddles and games, and complex visualizations and models.

War _Math
Khadim Mbacke War demonstrates 3D-printed equations at a Senegal school

In addition to setting up the exhibits, War and several other speakers traveled to different high schools for workshops. Speakers explored the many intersections between math and everyday life: one discussed mathematical weaving, while others illustrated the mathematics behind games and animations. War brought several 3D-printed objects made at ICTP's SciFabLab, all of them physical representations of equations students had only experienced on paper. "We tried to show them how the equations looked in real life, to help students visualize and understand them," explains War. 

Sharing excitement about math was also the motivation for a recent outreach activity held at ICTP. Local Italian secondary school math students traveled to the Centre to train for the Coppa Aurea mathematics competition, a team competition for a "golden cup" and the regional round of a national competition. Approximately 50 students attended each of five three-hour sessions to work on problems with all of ICTP’s mathematics postdoctoral fellows. "Mostly it was playing with the mathematics, doing the problems, and then discussing how to do it better, how do it quickly," says Oliver Butterley, an ICTP mathematics post-doc who helped schedule the sessions. 

In the past, trainings have taken place at each individual high school, while this year's big gatherings at ICTP let the students study together with their competitors. The Friday afternoon sessions were not competitive themselves, but an opportunity to work through problems in small groups, led by the enthusiastic math postdocs. "It's good for us to play with mathematics, that's why I do mathematics," says Butterley, "I particularly enjoyed seeing the students enjoying and playing with mathematics."

Oliver _Math
ICTP postdoc Oliver Butterley helping local high school students prepare for a math competition

For both War and Butterley, working with students can be a challenge. "I forget what they know and what they don't know," says War, describing how he had to work on audience-appropriate explanations beforehand. Butterley describes the amount of facts and shortcuts he learned while helping students train: "I have learned so many things about triangles that are only useful for this competition," he laughs.

Even though these outreach activities are a far cry from their research fields, both War and Butterley agree that taking the time is worth it. "We have to do more to try to talk to people about our research," War says. For these outreach programs, "You have to find a new way to explain what you're doing," he says. Butterley enjoyed the process; "I always am happy to improve my ability to attack problems." For both War and Butterley, sharing their enthusiasm about math and playing with mathematics were also just plain fun.

--Kelsey Calhoun