Wisaarkhu, a multidisciplinary project aimed at humanizing mathematics, is one of the innovative projects that has been selected as a finalist in the science engagement category of the Falling Walls competition taking place during the Berlin Science Week from 1 to 10 November 2020.
The Falling Walls Conference was established on 9 November 2009 with the 20th anniversary of the peaceful fall of the Berlin Wall. The aim of the conference, which has since grown into a World Science Summit, is to break down the walls between science and society.
Wisaarkhu is the brain child of Dr Sophie Marques and her colleague Prof Zurab Janelidze from the Mathematics Division at Stellenbosch University. It started in 2019 as a series of talks about the psychology of abstract mathematics, i.e. how we experience mathematics, and involved students and lecturers from mathematics, psychology, education and the arts. With the support of Prof Ingrid Rewitzky, head of the Department of Mathematical Sciences and Vice-Dean for Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Science, the initiative has since evolved into a community of practice with an online magazine and ongoing online talks with participants from all over the world.
Dr Marques says the seeds for the project was planted when she started feeling completely overwhelmed when confronted with the fears and anxieties of her students. While mathematics is supposed to empower her students, it more often than not had the complete opposite effect.
“If it is true that mathematics can empower people with essential life skills, then why are we failing so dramatically to do so? How can we share this knowledge as widely and fairly as possible? If education is about helping our students to be the best they can be, how do we do that with mathematics? How do we make mathematics accessible, valid and visible for most?" she writes on the Wisaarkhu blog.
One of the clinical psychologists involved in the project, Mariam Salie, says too many walls have been built around mathematics, creating anxiety and discomfort: “These walls disconnect the subject from reality and other disciplines and gives the impression that it is disconnected from humanity. With this project, we aim to break the stigma surrounding mathematics and give everyone the opportunity to learn maths, a very important life skill."
Dr Karin-Therese Howell, a lecturer in mathematics, says she nominated Wisaarkhu for the Falling Walls competition because the initiative encourages community and involvement with the field of mathematics: “As a lecturer, I was sad that most of my students would not engage with mathematics after they graduated. This project aims to change that."
Since the Wisaarkhu team learned that they are amongst the finalists in the competition, they have had to come up with a video about their work within a matter of days. This video was produced by lecturers Mariam Salie, Dr Karin-Theresa Howell, Dr Rizwana Roomaney, maths teacher Shaun Hudson-Bennet and students Ethan Quirke, Laylaa Motola and Lourens van Niekerk.
“This team effort is just one example of the amazing diversity and commitment of the entire Wisaarkhu community, working hard behind the scenes to make it a success," says Dr Marques.
Thus far she has attended a number of events, including discussions with the other finalists and exchanging ideas. The Wisaarkhu team now has to produce another video by 28 October in order to compete for the top ten positions in their category. The top ten videos will be screened during the Grand Finale on 9 November 2020, the day the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. All videos are freely accessible online at www.falling-walls.com/2020/finalists