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  • Global drive to 'put maths research to practical use'

[TORONTO] An initiative launched last week (7 December) aims to harness mathematicians' skills and focus them on tackling global issues, including natural disasters, climate change, sustainability and pandemics.

Mathematics of Planet Earth 2013 (MPE2013), launched at the Canadian Mathematical Society meeting earlier this month (7 December) comprises more than 100 partners — including scientific societies, research institutes and universities — from countries around the world, including Benin, Brazil, India, Senegal, South Africa and Vietnam.

The objectives include sparking the interest of mathematicians to focus their research on key global issues, and then to translate the research results into education materials, and use them as the basis for policy discussions with decision-makers.  

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  • Worldwide network aims to use maths research in real-world applications
  • The initiative will address topics such as natural disasters, climate change, healthcare and epidemics
  • Participants hope it will have a legacy, especially in educating and empowering math students

Christiane Rousseau, MPE2013 initiator and a professor of mathematics at the University of Montreal, Canada, says that those in developing countries will benefit from improved access to educational resources, as well as through indirect benefits accruing from applications including modeling tsunami waves and disease outbreaks, estimating earthquake evacuation times, and predicting hurricanes.

The initiative lacks a dedicated budget and will instead involve each partner volunteering their time and resources for local activities, created by each partner, in order to help apply mathematics to global problems.

A series of lectures planned at many partner institutions also promises to help educate the public about global problems and the mathematical approach to finding solutions.

MPE2013's education and research activities are also intended to inspire a "new generation of researchers" in all countries, Rousseau says.

According to Amit Apte and Sreekar Vadlamani, two mathematicians at one of MPE2013's partners, at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research's Centre for Applicable Mathematics in Bangalore, India, many mathematics students finish university with only an abstract understanding of mathematics because "university programmes are quite theoretical".  

One goal their MPE2013 participation is to get "more students in mathematics who are thinking about applications" of their skills to "real world" problems such as climate change.

A representative of another MPE2103 partner, Barry Green, director of the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Cape Town, South Africa, discussed their programme for educating teachers to improve mathematics instruction in African schools.  

One of AIMS' activities is to lead workshops for teachers from rural districts, helping to instil confidence along with the knowledge to effectively teach mathematics.  

Green says that educational approaches such as those included in MPE2013 help "empower people and they can help empower children", and to "develop the skills in young people … to interact with the modern world".

Rousseau, Green, Apte, and Vadlamani all stressed that although MPE2013 is a one-year initiative, outcomes such as enriching educational curricula are expected to be long-lived.  

Other lasting contributions will include mathematical strategies for economic and healthcare management.  

According to Rousseau, MPE2013 is "a way to create the momentum and enthusiasm, and when you create such things, something remains. The goals of MPE2013 have no reason to stop in 2013. These are long-term goals."