/ 9 September 2008

Maths with a mission

The future of mathematics in South Africa’s schools is hanging in the balance, and unless ways can be found to improve the teaching of this most fundamental of subjects, the country’s skills crisis will worsen.

It is a gloomy scenario, but a creative and innovative project that aims to bolster the government’s national strategy for mathematics, science and technology offers a glimmer of hope.

The M2 Coffee Shop project is a partnership between the Northern Cape department of education and the private sector. It provides a fresh approach to mathematics teaching and learning environments, with an initial focus on the Northern Cape.

By building and equipping a maths “coffee shop” — which is hip and trendy with a relaxing ambience and the “wow” factor — the project is expected to inspire a love for maths in learners and educators while improving learner performance through exciting and challenging maths sessions, which include maths activities and games, aligned to the national curriculum.

The M2 Coffee Shop model will also offer support to maths educators, helping them to develop and renew their love for teaching the subject, while assisting student teachers through shared experiences and structured workshops.

One of the desired outcomes is to ensure that there is a qualified and competent teacher in every maths, science and technology classroom in the province. Other outcomes are to improve the language of teaching and learning for maths, science and technology; to identify and nurture talent and potential in maths, science and technology; and to enter into partnerships with stake­holders to raise the necessary resources and mobilise technical support and expertise.

It’s an enormous challenge, says project manager Anne Maclean, but one to which the M2 Coffee Shop looks set to rise.

Starting out with a vision for the Northern Cape, the project will hopefully provide a model for the rest of the country, says Maclean.

“Through the vastness and aridness of the landscape, the lack of facilities and job opportunities, the Northern Cape is faced with extreme challenges, causing many young people to feel hopeless and suicidal,” she says.

“The establishment of the M2 Coffee Shop in Kimberley, the capital of Northern Cape, will serve as a ‘lighthouse’ — a source of hope for the youth, offering them a ‘wow’ place to study, a fun place to ‘hang out’, a haven when they need a listening ear or a loving heart — an alternative to the hours so many spend in the local drinking halls and nightclubs.

“The vision is to nurture the love for mathematics outside the classroom in order to assist what happens inside the classroom.”

Although much is done throughout South Africa to promote mathematics education and address the challenges, the M2 Coffee Shop project is a first of a kind, which goes beyond extra lessons, Saturday classes and holiday schools.

The venue plan is revolutionary in teaching terms, encompassing an auditorium, multipurpose hall, workshop areas, computer labs, a games area, coffee-shop area and admin and careers area.

“The model provides the education department and the private sector with innovative opportunities to partner in developing human capital with the necessary skills, knowledge and values to grow our economy and to become a more globally competitive force,” says Maclean.

“Through the resources it provides and the programmes it initiates, it aims at harnessing the strengths in the system to address the weaknesses, rekindling a love and passion for the teaching profession, motivating and supporting learners with potential from disadvantaged backgrounds, creatively providing opportunities for the business world to have ‘hands-on’ access to these learners, assisting in addressing the skills shortage and growing a mathematically literate South African society that will feed the economy, which aims to eradicate poverty and become globally competitive in the 21st century.”

It’s an enormous brief but one Maclean is confident of fulfilling.

By exhibiting at Insite 2008 at the Sandton Convention Centre later this month, the project hopes to win support from various sectors in South Africa and from further afield.

“We are looking at building support networks, sponsorships for future maths programmes, sponsorship for building the venue, equipment and materials for programmes, IT support (software, equipment, maintenance) and ­bursaries for talented youth,” she says.

“We also need to secure transport for the learners in the programmes and for project management as well as meeting our running costs.”

It’s no small shopping list, but Maclean is confident that the exposure the exhibition will bring will help to put ticks next to most, if not all, of those items.

“This project is the first of its kind, and we feel Insite 2008 is the perfect platform to show evidence of the impact the project is already having on our youth in addressing the challenges facing mathematics and the critical skills shortage.”

During the exhibition, delegates will have a chance to meet some of the learners who have benefitted from the project, as well as finding out more about this Section 21 company’s plans for future expansion.

The skills crisis
What the experts say about our skills crisis:

“To confront the full reality of our skills crisis we have to face the fact that South African education and training is in deep trouble. Fixing it will take a generation. What do we do in the meantime?” ­- Ann Bernstein, director of the Centre for Development and Enterprise in South Africa

“The government has identified the shortage of suitably skilled labour as the biggest threat to the successful implementation of Asgisa [the accelarated and shared growth initiative for South Africa], the shortage being most prominent in the fields of engineering, construction, sciences, management and skilled technical fields such as IT technicians and engineers.” — Duncan Hindle, Director General of the national Department of Education

A shortage of competent teachers is making it difficult to develop skills that are critical to growth in the economy. Just to stay where we are, we need 21 000 new teachers each year but only 5 000 come on stream annually. Already the situation is critical. Half of the secondary schools don’t offer higher grade maths. Only 15% of maths teachers are qualified — And one new maths teacher was produced by Wits University in 2005.” — Azar Jammine, chief economist at Econometrix