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Headlines Published on 23 November 2004

Title UN expo tackles the demonisation of mathematics

Described as “boring and difficult” by disenchanted students and “dangerous” by certain government authorities, mathematics has never been more unpopular. And yet mathematical support systems are behind much of the technological wizardry loved so dearly by gadget-crazy youths – and sometimes their parents. How has this disaffection with humble maths managed to spread so far and what is being done about it?

UN puts a fire under the mathematics profession to spark greater interest in this fading science © PhotoDisc
UN puts a fire under the mathematics profession to spark greater interest in this fading science
© PhotoDisc
Pythagoras would marvel at the technology we now take for granted as part and parcel of modern life. But he and other genii can take some of the credit for creating the mathematical basis for this technological revolution. Everything from the vehicles we use to get around to the mobile phones and computing devices that seem to use us, owe their existence to mathematics. But the maths behind these developments is simply invisible to the person on the street, reports UNESCO’s A World of Science, October issue.

To put some of the shine back into this forgotten science, a team of mathematicians from universities, research institutions and science centres, led by UNESCO, the United Nations educational, scientific and cultural organisation, has designed a travelling exhibition called ‘Experiencing Mathematics’. The expo targets young people between the ages of ten and 18, but also their parents and teachers. Featuring posters and stands with experiments, such as working models of Pythagoras’ Theorem, the aim of the expo is to be interactive and entertaining, which echoes the aims of European Science Week, an EU science awareness scheme.

The mobile maths expo began its world tour in Copenhagen (DA) over the summer and plans stops in EU members France, Finland and Italy, as well as outside the Union in Canada, Ghana, Ecuador, Mexico and possibly many more during the coming year(s). The organisers are considering applications from other countries wishing to host the exhibition. They are also trying to raise funds and technical support for those countries eager to host the expo but which cannot afford it, the article ‘Who needs maths at a time like this?’ explains.

Do the math!
“Ask people what they think of mathematics and they tend to answer ‘boring and difficult’,” notes UNESCO. It is so unpopular, they continue, that some people experience what William Dunham describes in his book, The Mathematical Universe, as ‘mathophobia’. People have been put off maths by bad teaching, bad experiences, and they even try to blame bad genes for their lack of aptitude. “While the fault may not always lie with teachers, they do need to think more deeply about how they present mathematics to their pupils,” the article stresses.

The subject of declining interest in the pure sciences, such as maths, chemistry and physics, has been addressed at various fora and in several international reports, including a Eurobarometer study produced by Eurostat, the EU’s statistical body, and a report by a high-level group on human resources in science and technology.

UNESCO’s director-general told delegates at last June’s expert meeting on Science and Technology Education that this trend, if not reversed, will have dire consequences in the future, especially for development issues. But breaking the downward spiral in maths education is a costly and time-consuming exercise.

Experiencing Mathematics was first put together by the Science Centre in Orléans (FR), with support from the International Commission for Mathematical Instruction, the International Mathematical Union, the European Mathematical Union and contributions from the Japanese government and universities in France and the Philippines. It draws its inspiration from award-winning Japanese and French initiatives in 2000 and 2002.

Source:  UNESCO

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More information:

  • A World of Science PDF icon (Vol. 2 No. 4, October-December 2004)
  • Europe needs more scientists! (see provisional findings of the High-Level group)
  • Europeans, science and technology PDF icon (Eurobarometer Dec. 2001)

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