University of Saskatchewan

September 01, 2014   

PROF LEADS WAY WITH INTERNET MATH PROJECT

September 21, 1999

COLUMN BY KATHRYN WARDEN

There is a photo of Keith Taylor on his web page: http://math.usask.ca/~taylor/personal.html

University of Saskatchewan professor Keith Taylor was among some 60 mathematical scientists invited by the federal government and the Canadian Mathematical Society to attend a recent high-level Canadian-Chinese mathematics congress in Beijing.

The Canadian delegation was led by Tom Brzustowski, president of NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council). Guests invited to a Canadian embassy reception included the Deputy Director of the National People's Congress, the head of China's NSERC counterpart, and the presidents of China's three mathematics institutes.

The unprecedented meeting, attended by hundreds of scientists, focussed on the central importance of mathematics for the modern economy.

Far from being an Ivory Tower subject with little relevance to everyday life, math provides new tools to help unlock the genetic code of biological materials, analyze environmental factors that affect human health and evaluate risks that affect costs and prices. As Brzustowski stated earlier this year, "By providing new tools to explain or simplify complex real world problems, mathematics plays a key role in every modern science and engineering discipline."

But despite its venerable 6,000-year tradition of mathematics, China has in recent years suffered a brain drain of many of its finest mathematical minds. China now risks not having enough mathematicians to educate its massive 1.2-billion population.

"If you were to count the expatriate Chinese mathematicians working just in Canada, you'd have a mathematics community comparable in research strength to what exists in China," says Taylor.

So how can China bring math to the masses? That's where Taylor's research comes in. He's developing an Internet-based, basic math course that would enable adult learners - whether in northern Saskatchewan or northern China - to upgrade their math skills right in their own homes or communities. This is not simply a correspondence course; the students learn by doing interactive on-line assignments.

Taylor has had plenty of experience with using the Internet to upgrade students' math skills. More than 400 students have gone through his Math Readiness Course which is delivered through an on-campus summer camp and a web-based program. Begun in 1995, it aims to better prepare students for the rigors of university math.

"What we've discovered over the years is that many adult learners want to start up their education again but aren't ready for our math readiness course," he said.

"It turns out there's a tremendous number of people who need this type of web-based course. There are people from northern Saskatchewan who want to beef up their math skills so they can take training courses related to jobs in the North. There are tellers who want to get through bank training courses. And there are farmers who realize they can no longer support their families through farming and who now want to go to technical school."

With the help of funding from CAPES (Cameco Access Program for Engineering and Science) and Saskatchewan Post-Secondary Education and Skills Training, Taylor hopes to have the new course ready by April of 2000.

The Chinese were sufficiently interested in Taylor's web-based approach to math instruction that they extended an invitation to him to return within the next two years to act as an advisor while officials at Beijing's Tsinghau University set up a similar program.

Many other Canadian-Chinese linkages were established at the congress, paving the way for Canadian and Chinese students and researchers to collaborate and benefit from their respective strengths.

Last July 1, Taylor became western vice-president of the Canadian Mathematical Society (CMS). The CMS wants to reach out to form new partnerships with the users of mathematics in business, governments and universities, and educators in the school and college systems. The hope is that this will lead to new collaborative projects and greater recognition of the central role of mathematics in the national economy.

The Canadian government is not just paying lip service to this idea. Ottawa is spending $14.5 million over four years on a new math-related "centre of excellence" network that will bring together universities and industries to develop new mathematical tools for key sectors of the Canadian economy.

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