Understanding The Ubiquity Of Mathematics

“Most of us either have a visceral fear of Mathematics or there is complete awe. This largely depends on the way the subject is taught at school and undergraduate level. Academician Geetha Venkataraman explores Mathematical thinking”

Mathematics is all around us. It is the silent part of most equations in the modern world. Given this ubiquitous nature of Mathematics, how do people react to Mathematics? The reactions seem to straddle two extremes, either it is a visceral fear of Mathematics or there is complete awe. The middle ground seems to be largely missing.

 The former reaction often stems from nightmarish experiences people have had with Mathematics. Yet, can we imagine the world today if we did not have the vast body of knowledge that Mathematics comprises?

 Why Math is difficult:

The purely utilitarian need for Mathematics should be enough for Mathematics to be nourished and to be allowed to flourish.  Areas of the brain light up when a Mathematician proves a theorem or appreciates an elegant piece of Mathematics as when a person appreciates art or poetry or music. This raises a question. Why have Mathematicians been unable to convey the wonders of Mathematics to lay public? Even intelligent lay persons are beyond the reach of Mathematics. Part of the reason is that the abstruse and abstract language required to express Mathematics, often renders the Mathematician incapable of communicating the ideas and thoughts involved to even an informed lay public.

Learning Math

Mathematics at undergraduate level is very different from that at the school level. As a result, students are exposed to an entirely new way of learning Mathematics, which involves, reading, writing and understanding proofs, as well as their applications. The syllabus consists of realm of abstract Mathematics.

The biggest need is to deploy requisite pedagogical tools to ensure that students studying Mathematics can understand and work with the abstraction required. Secondly, along with an understanding of the theory, students should be able to solve problems based on theory learnt.

These two are intertwined. It is impossible to understand theory without seeing how it solves problems and solving problems using the theoretical tools further enhances the understanding of the theory.

Making it enjoyable

A third dimension at play now in modern Mathematics curricula at the undergraduate level is the use of programming and computer labs to investigate and simulate situations to understand the patterns that gave rise to the theory. This is enjoyed by students and enhances their employability.

We need to teach students to be able to think, write, communicate Mathematics and to be able to share the ideas. Given that school students are Mathematically ill equipped to handle university level Mathematics, it becomes imperative that the right pedagogical environment is provided for these students.

This means adequate teaching in the form of lectures, special tutorial sessions for every course with a smaller number of students and lab classes wherever required. Indeed, the much-maligned UGC Choice Based Credit System syllabus too recognizes such needs for the discipline of Mathematics. Computer Lab classes have become as essential for Mathematics as labs are for science subjects. Programming and learning the use of Mathematical software helps in better understanding of Mathematics. The side benefit that accrues is that these are also excellent tools for modeling real life problems.
Fighting Fear of Math:

  • Induce Mathematical Thinking
  • Understanding Abstract Portions
  • Problem- Solving Based on theory learnt
  • Computer lab classes for maths
  • Use of Mathematical software

Relevant teaching
Low-quality training at the undergraduate level would mean a slew of teachers at school who will be raising a new generation of citizens with nightmarish experiences of Mathematics.

This also means lowering of standards of research in Mathematics. It is a no-brainer to therefore ensure that there is a strong focus and investment in Math teaching at the undergraduate level. If universities are not willing to spend adequately on teacher for lectures, tutorials and lab hours, they may as well not run undergraduate level Mathematics programmes.

Everyone need not or indeed cannot be a Mathematician. But education would be seriously incomplete unless there is a sense of Mathematical thinking. Mathematics is not about nightmares or awe. It is a means to combine curiosity and discovery. It is a universal language.

(Geetha Venkataraman is a Professor of Mathematics at Ambedkar University Delhi and Dean Assessment, Evaluation and Student Progression) 

Courtesy: Times Of India

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