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Vol. 27 No. 1
January-February 2005

The Project Place | Information about new, current, and complete IUPAC projects and related initiatives
See also www.iupac.org/projects

Capacity Building in the Mathematical Sciences

by Keith Moffatt

In order to promote international scientific and technological activities that contribute to the benefit and well being of society, the International Council for Science (ICSU) offers a grants program to support collaborative scientific initiatives of the ICSU “family.” One such ICSU-supported project is the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Muizenberg, a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa. This important new initiative in capacity building in science education will provide an Africa-based solution to African problems, facilitated by the international scientific community.

A Workshop on Capacity Building in the Mathematical Sciences took place in Muizenberg from 13–17 April 2004, during the first year of academic activity at AIMS. Its objectives were to consider the problems associated with capacity building in mathematics and its applications in the physical and biological sciences and technology, and the manner in which AIMS is approaching these problems. Participants also considered how the Internet can be used to promote teaching and research in Africa and in the developing world.

The workshop was sponsored by the International Union of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics (IUTAM) on the basis of a grant awarded by ICSU under the 2004 ICSU grants program. IUTAM’s proposal to ICSU was supported by the following scientific and national members of ICSU, many of which were represented at the workshop: IUGG (International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics), IMU (International Mathematical Union) IUPAP (International Union of Pure and Applied Physics), IUPAC, IUA (International Union of Astronomy), TWAS (Third World Academy of Science), and national members South Africa, Brazil, Netherlands, Egypt, and UK.

The workshop included a number of survey lectures of outstanding quality from representatives of the above international scientific unions. In addition, there were a number of additional attendees from the local community at some of the invited lectures.

The program consisted of a sequence of invited lectures interspersed with discussion sessions, and presentations from AIMS students.

Following are some of the diverse lecture topics:

  • “Understanding the Universe,” Neil Turok (Cambridge UK, and AIMS)
  • “Mathematics and the Figure of the Earth,” Charles Merry (UCT,South Africa; IUGG)
  • “The Physical Chemistry of Time,” Peter Atkins (Oxford UK; IUPAC)
  • “Marvelous Mathematical Models,” Hassan Aref (Virginia Tech. USA; IUTAM)
  • “Mathematics of the Internet,”
  • Frank Kelly (Cambridge UK)
  • “NEPAD and the Future of Science in Africa,” Neville Arendse (Dept of Science and Technology, SA)
  • “Listening to the Inside of the Sun,” Douglas Gough (Cambridge UK; IAU)
  • “Numbers: The Shape of Things to Come,” Martin Taylor (Manchester UK; Royal Society)
  • “From Galileo to Convexity: Some Key Ideas in Structural Mechanics,” Jean Salencon (Ecole Polytechnique, Palaiseau, France; IUTAM and Academie des Sciences)
  • “Dynamics of an Emerging Infectious Disease: HIV,” Gareth Witten (AIMS Executive Committee)

Discussion sessions were conducted on subjects such as the use of the Internet for teaching mathematics and issues related to establishing an African Network for Teaching and Research. A final session was devoted to key questions relating to future actions; the following important questions and issues were extensively discussed:

i) How can the Internet be best exploited in the teaching of mathematics at the school level in Africa? Toni Beardon described the steps being taken by AIMSSEC (the AIMS Schools Enrichment Centre) to provide Web-based teaching for schools <www.aims.ac.za/aimssec>.

ii) A draft proposal to establish an African Mathematical Institutes Network (AMI-Net) was introduced by Neil Turok. This proposal is motivated by the need to overcome numerous obstacles presently faced by African scientists: low morale; low publication rates; lack of innovative capacity; poor quality of teaching affecting future generations; brain drain of top students, teachers, and researchers from Africa; waste of resources due to lack of coordination across the continent; and dependency on the developed world for expensive software. The proposal, involving a number of partner organizations including AIMS, will exploit the window of opportunity offered by:

—support of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development
—potential for rapid communication and collaboration available through the Internet, provided fast links can be established
—access to open-source and free software available through the Internet
—increase in potential bandwidth provided by new submarine cables and satellite services

This AMI-Net proposal will focus on postgraduate research and teaching in the mathematical sciences, and will link centers of excellence across the African continent.

iii) The AIMS Postgraduate Diploma is at present a one-year course in the mathematical sciences. There has been some discussion concerning its possible extension to a two-year Master’s qualification, a development that would be popular with the students themselves. The general consensus of opinion, however, was that the AIMS Diploma fulfills a unique role at present, that its teaching style is highly innovative and should not be constrained by the regulations that would be unavoidable for a degree course, and that it should be allowed to develop in its present form for at least a few years, before any fundamental change is envisaged.

iv) There was also discussion of the possibility of setting up “sister institutes” at other African locations: North, East, West and Center. Again however, the consensus view was that the “pan-African” character of AIMS was one of its great strengths, and regional African Institutes could have a countereffect. Fritz Hahne warned that great effort was needed to establish a new institute like AIMS, and that this could not be undertaken lightly; nevertheless, if such initiatives were to emerge in other parts of Africa, AIMS would give every encouragement. However, the idea of a linked network of centers of excellence (based on existing universities) received more support in the discussion.

Keith Moffatt <moffatt@tournesol.lps.ens.fr> is the president of IUTAM and a professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, France.


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