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Teaching Mathematics for the future
Author: Pia Nänny
Published: 15/08/2017

Researchers from across the world recently gathered in Cape Town to share knowledge about and discuss “sense-making" in mathematics teaching and learning, applied problem-solving (modelling), and the way in which mathematical models and modelling underpin much of the work across the science, technology and engineering disciplines.

More than 130 delegates from 20 countries attended the 18th International Conference on the Teaching of Mathematical Modelling and Applications (ICTMA-18), organised by the Research Unit for Mathematics Education (RUMEUS) situated within the Faculty of Education at Stellenbosch University (SU).

It was the first time this biennial conference was hosted on the African continent. The venue was the Training Centre at Sanlam Head Office in Bellville.

Prof Gloria Stillman, President of he International Community of Teachers of Mathematical Modelling and Applications, said at the opening of the conference that the community's strong research focus has recognised the importance of establishing a robust knowledge base from which to address challenges in the teaching, learning and assessing of mathematical modelling and applications.

Guest speaker Prof Eugene Cloete, SU Vice-rector: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies, gave some excellent examples of the application of mathematical modelling in biological sciences.

To illustrate how mathematical modelling can be applied to solve real-world problems, he explained how it was used to cut down the fermentation time of yeast in the beer brewing process from 21 days to 15 days, giving the brewery an additional capacity of 25%. He also referred to the Activated Sludge Method, developed by a group of world experts, who met on a regular basis over a period of five years to come up with a mathematical model to describe what happens in this system which is used to treat municipal wastewater.

Francois Adriaan, Head of the Sanlam Foundation, explained why a large corporate such as Sanlam would be interested in mathematics.

“There is a high level of correlation between good numeracy and protection against unemployment, low wages and poor health. There is also evidence that mathematical literacy correlates with financial literacy," he said. He added that mathematics also correlates strongly with innovation and problem solving and that the world needs innovators and problem-solvers to address current challenges.

The conference was concluded with a Modelling Teacher Day, organised by RUMEUS in conjunction with the Western Cape Department of Education (WCED), where the principles and ideas discussed during the week-long conference were shared with 138 teachers, subject advisors, academics, WCED representatives and education students from across the Western Cape. The facilitators included experts from Germany, Australia and South Africa.

“We can't carry on teaching as we taught in the past, because the future looks different. We need to prepare learners to deal with the real world. Mathematical modelling and problem solving are about helping learners make sense of real-world problems," said Dr Helena Wessels, senior lecturer in the Department of Curriculum Studies at SU and chair of the conference organising committee.

Brian Schreuder, Superintendent General of the WCED, echoed both Wessels' and Adriaan's sentiments in his address to teachers. “For me, mathematically modelling is about problem solving and critical thinking. It's about the process and the skills. The learners we teach will have to be able to function in the 21st century. Are we doing enough to prepare them for this world?"

He voiced concern that the South African curriculum is still geared towards 20th century learning outcomes. “We are overpopulating our curriculum with content and we are not creating the opportunity for learning to take place. We have to do more in our classes to develop the skills of the future."

He encouraged teachers to link the CAPS curriculum to what is happening in the real world.

“The principles of mathematical modelling can help us achieve our vision of a quality education for every learner, in every classroom, in every school in our province," he concluded.

Dr Peter Beets, Deputy Director: WCED Curriculum & Assessment Management, also attended the Modelling Teacher Day.​​