Mathematical Education, Pakistan And The New Economy
On the 25th of November 2019, UNESCO proclaimed March 14 as the International Day of Mathematics. Why and how?
It would have been too much to expect such an institution to spontaneously recognize the impact of mathematics on our planet. Of course, such a decision required the mobilization of the mathematical community. In fact, a network of organizations, starting with the International Mathematical Union (IMU) and leading mathematical societies, and many associations of women in mathematics, such as IMU-CWM, AWMA, EWM, AMU-CAWM, have been involved in the implementation of this proclamation.
In these strange times of the virus, the whole world talks – without paying much attention – about exponential functions, growth rates, simulations, with easy predictions, without the need for “error estimation”. There are few mathematicians who speak. But mathematicians will continue the search for a better analysis of epidemics, a more careful use of Big Data, a greater dissemination of proven scientific results and to improve the average quality of the population’s mathematical knowledge, so as not to be left in the ‘hands’ of artificial intelligence. Mathematics is a universal language that unlocks creativity by abstracting an issue to uncover patterns that offer answers to the most relevant questions.
The ability to create and develop mathematical models of the real world is critical to Pakistan’s future competitiveness and growth. Mathematical truths tend to make a confusing universe more understandable and achievable, and they are connected to productivity and creativity at all levels of the economy. Mathematics can allow us alleviate traffic congestion in our communities, reduce costs in a comprehensive rail transportation network, prevent internet congestion, build creative optical lens designs, weigh the costs and benefits of environmental policy and refine a small business strategy. Mathematics can build modern and improved Pakistani industries. It is now at the centre of essential concerns concerning nature, life, and health. What function does genomic knowledge play in early-life growth and health? How will medical image resolution be increased when file size is reduced? How can mathematics be used to build a more stable financial regulatory framework?
The more technologically sophisticated a society becomes, the more critical its need for mathematical thinking. Mathematics paves the way to greater economic diversity and opportunity. A smart economy relies on mathematical abilities, but you would never realize it. In general, mathematics is often misunderstood and unrecognizable in terms of school and undergraduate mathematics. This is where mathematics education has failed miserably. The most important contribution that mathematics can make to Pakistan’s smart economy is to improve this. The remedy concerns the approach as well as the content. Mathematics as it is practiced, in research and professional occupations, requires thought, creativity, judgment, questioning and problem-solving. An economy based on production lines does not necessitate these skills as a matter of practice, but an economy based on knowledge and invention does.
The present learning environment in schools and universities is content with programming students to execute complex mathematical operations. And our systems of evaluation reward students who can measure anything, even though they do not grasp it. It is more like getting ready for a production-based rather than knowledge-based economy. The mathematics discipline aims to improve the knowledge base of those who teach mathematics as a solution. However, “up-skilling” teachers with “more of the same” will not provide the mathematics that a smart Pakistan needs. In both the innovation economy and science, we need mathematics to be “taught more as it is done” by those who deal with it. There is a cultural change that will affect the discipline, and it will need to be integrated into school and university processes. Without this, the general public’s understanding of the relationship between mathematics and the economy will remain distorted, and mathematics will be slow in exerting its due impact and providing its benefits to a 21st-century Pakistan.
Biology is a good example of applying mathematics in a realistic way. Despite the need for mathematically qualified experts at the scientific frontier, the sluggish acceptance of mathematics and statistics in university biology curricula stymies our progress. The lesson here is that we need to link mathematics and biology in our classrooms: two sciences that have historically been separated (despite Darwin’s observation). In the twenty-first century, mathematics is reaching the biosciences in the same manner as mathematics met physics in the previous century, and we must express this through the curriculum rather than depending on Brian Cox, Simon Singh, Facebook and Twitter to do so.
Experience shows that mathematics multidisciplinary potential is inextricably related to the discipline’s well‐being. A striking example is the use of 19th- and 20th-century differential geometry in 21st-century computer graphics. This pointed observation is directed at the administrators of our universities! The word cloud below depicts several public, private, and academic organizations that are all vital to where we will be in 2025 and that hire or engage research-trained mathematicians and statisticians. In a world accustomed to change, mathematicians’ functions are becoming increasingly important, and they are multidisciplinary in nature – statisticians work with merchants to optimize and evaluate their reward schemes, and mathematicians work with banks to handle financial risk and hospitals to manage emergency ward workflows.
We perform a critical role in the development of knowledge-based industries as well as the efficient activity of the natural and primary resource sectors. Unfortunately, we do not always communicate this effectively, especially with students and their parents, but we are making progress. This practical mathematics can be divided into two categories: support roles and lead roles. Support roles entail the application of current advanced mathematics, while lead roles entail active research. Mathematics, in my view, is once again a resource for the planet’s restoration. We have the requisite resources, academic rigor, professionalism, and language. To achieve tangible improvements, we simply need to expand our creativity a little further.
A great initiative took jointly by the Department of Mathematics, LUMS, COMSATS University, Islamabad and IBA Sukkur to celebrate the International Day of Mathematics 2021 in Pakistan. I am confident that this event will be a milestone for awareness about the importance of mathematics for a better world.
What about the next IDM? We must not hope to “go back”, as one of the main problems is what the normality had become, but we must aim to find new ways. Let me conclude with a quote from Arundhati Roy, author of The Algebra of Infinite Justice among many other texts: “Another world is not only possible, but it is coming. On quiet days, I can hear his breath.”
Abid Amin Naeem is research scholar at department of Mathematics at COMSATS University Islamabad. He can be reached at [email protected]