“The laws of mathematics govern everything around us - from the way the stars shine to the amount of sugar we consume; from chemical reactions to the distance we travel to get to our respective destinations. When we understand mathematics, we can begin to use it to make the most of our daily lives.”
That was the message delivered by Dr Fanelwa Ngece-Ajayi, senior lecturer in Physical Chemistry at the University of the Western Cape, at the 2019 UWC Women in Mathematics Mini-Convention at the Capetonian hotel.
The event, organised annually by the Faculty of Education’s Science Learning Centre for Africa (SLCA) as part of the University’s Women’s Month celebrations, brings together 125 girl learners and their teachers from 25 schools in disadvantaged areas across the Cape Flats.
“Mathematics is key to opening the doors for learners for further tertiary study, and ultimately for entry into many careers - not just as statisticians or accountants, but as engineers, astronomers, and even lawyers,” said Dr Monde Mbekwa, Acting Director of the SLCA.
This exciting project is aimed at providing girl learners - with mathematics as a key school subject - an opportunity to directly interact with female role models who have successfully used mathematics in their area of expertise.
“Mathematics plays an important role in the subject I teach,” Dr Ajayi noted. “This is also true with my research which needs certain calculations for different aspects of my work, while during funding proposal writing, Mathematical skills are also required for budgeting purposes.”
But there’s more to Mathematics than just the numbers - as Dr Ajayi well knows, as the founder and leader of the non-profit organisation, AmaQawe ngeMfundo, (which aims to change the negative stereotypes about STEM at township schools), and co-establisher of KasiMaths, a scalable low cost mathematics HUB for learners in marginalised communities.
“There are qualities which mathematics nurtures in us, such as creativity, critical thinking, the power of reasoning and problem solving - and even patience,” Dr Ajayi said. “These are products created from the rigorous and challenging mathematical concepts our brains endure, and that can help us overcome our challenges in a range of situations.”
Maths: It’s For Everyone (And Everywhere)
The annual Women in Mathematics Mini-convention serves to highlight the importance of mathematics as a learning area, and to provide a forum in the form of a mini-convention where girl learners can engage with successful female role models in mathematics and mathematics-related careers.
This year, those role models included: Dr Ajayi, who in addition to her work as a lecturer and researcher has been selected as a SAYAS Young Scientist and a Next Einstein Forum Fellow; Palesa Nombula, UWC Astrophysics Master’s student, SKA researcher and SARAO commercialisation officer - and recipient of the InspiringFifty 2018 South Africa award; Pelisa Zihle, Senior Consultant at Accounting and Financial Advisory; qualified pilot Nicole September; and Dr Nasiema Allie, Senior Scientist at the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics at Stellenbosch University.
“Mathematics is the language of nature,” Palesa noted. “We are able to understand and explain nature through science and experiments by using mathematics. The message I have for the learners is that: Mathematics can be studied and mastered by anybody. Be persistent, work with your fellow peers and believe in yourself - and don’t be afraid to get things wrong.”
Learners need to be exposed to these women in mathematics so as to be motivated to learn that it is not where they come from that determines their future, but the determination and the motivation to succeed which determine what they become, said Prof Mbekwa.
“These role models come from much the same backgrounds as the learners - and they have achieved great things. The chief message is that it is not impossible to rise above poverty and that one does not need to be a genius to succeed.”
Dr Ajayi agreed.
“Practice really does make perfect. Learners who struggle with Mathematics just need to work at it on a daily basis, and consult those in the know when they meet challenges. And for those not sure if Mathematics is for them, I encourage you to explore further. There’s more to maths than you might think, and I would encourage any learner to choose this subject.”