International Math Outreach Workshop (15w5101)

Arriving in Banff, Alberta Sunday, November 22 and departing Friday November 27, 2015


(Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences / University of British Columbia)

Helene Barcelo (Mathematical Sciences Research Institute)


Matheus Grasselli (Fields Institute)

(Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute)

Luc Vinet (University of Montreal)


Enhancing math outreach activities and creating new ones is important in order to eliminate the common belief that mathematics is reserved for the elite, that it is very difficult and not accessible to every one, that everything which needed to be discovered in math has already been discovered, that math is a very serious business and in any event that no one can take pleasure in doing mathematics! This is why we must join our efforts to develop strategies to eliminate these false perceptions. Hence the need for a math outreach meeting.There are very valuable and even innovative math outreach activities being held all over the planet, but unfortunately the majority of these activities never find their way outside the countries where they were initiated and in some cases not even outside the local community where they were created.Here are some of these activities:

  • Math en jeans ("Math in jeans"), an initiative created by the "Centre national de la recherche scientifique" in France, by which hundreds of top researchers from CNRS volunteer to visit elementary schools to share their passion for math and to challenge kids with math problems; in early April of every year, a 5-day national conference conveys several hundred elementary school students to present the solutions of the problems they were challenged with.

  • Show Math, an initiative of SMAC (Sciences et mathematiques en action): it is a series of funny multimedia math shows, with professional comedians, offered to elementary schools and high schools, mainly in the Province of Quebec but also at times in BC, Ontario and New Brunswick; so far, more than 220 shows have taken place.

  • Math Out Loud, created by Mitacs: it is a theatrical play on mathematics, with professional comedians, music, songs; its main purpose is to show that math is everywhere and that math can be very entertaining.

  • Pluton va en appel! ("The case for Pluto"), an initiative of SMAC: it is a play in which the actors (the Sun, Neptune and Mercury) debate as to whether or not Pluto should be renamed a planet! The arguments for and against rest mostly on mathematics.

  • "C'est mathematique!", a Quebec initiative held in 2000 and 2001: it was a weekly 30-minute television series offered in prime time on a science channel and whose main purpose was to show that mathematics is everywhere.

  • Math Girl, developed by Veselin Jungic, a math professor at Simon Fraser University; it features a superhero who solves super problems using mathematics.

  • Who wants to be a mathematician?, a math contest developed by AMS and meant for senior high school students in the US; each year, the best eight students are invited in a central location to participate in a grand finale. Prize money are offered to the best performers as well as to their schools.

  • Mathematical Moments, a one pager highlighting in lay terms the role of mathematics in various ventures (special effects at the movies, space exploration, renewable energy, etc.) and published on the AMS web site; seven new "Math Moments" are posted every year.

  • Math in careers, 20 3-minute videos created by AMSI which show that in various careers (electrician, financial analyst, travel agent, store manager, hairdresser, etc.), math ends up being a very important asset.

  • Neighborhood talks, an initiative of SMAC; it ia a talk designed for parents of elementary school students, in which parents learn that there are careers in math and math in careers and also that they can help their kids being better at math even though they, themselves, do not know much about math.

  • The Three Minute Thesis, a research communication competition developed by The University of Queensland. The idea is for the PhD students to effectively explain their research in three minutes in a language appropriate to a non-specialist audience.

  • Let us add that there are many other initiatives which were created for the purpose of pure entertainment, but which nevertheless have contributed to popularize mathematics. These include, for instance: -- The weekly television series "Numbers", with over 11 million viewers, which shows that mathematics can end up being very useful in solving crime mysteries. -- The Simpsons', a comic show on television, whose creators have a degree in mathematics from Harvard. One will notice that in the dialog, some famous math problems emerge, such as Fermat's Last Theorem and a discussion on perfect numbers, narcissitic numbers and Mersenne primes, all important number theory features.All of the above activities have proven to be successful in creating interest for mathematics or showing that mathematics is important in our society. Some of these are being picked up outside the countries they were developed in; such is the case of the Three Minute Thesis. However, most of these activities are not known outside the countries they were initiated in. But it seems clear that most (if not all) could be very beneficial to kids and to the general public in other countries, perhaps after some adjustment in order to adapt them to the local culture.The purpose of this International Math Outreach Workshop is therefore to bring together the leaders in math outreach from all over the world as well as those interested in benefiting from the experience of the leaders in the domain, to have them share their successful experiences as well as the difficulties they encountered, to explore how by simply sharing ideas most could benefit from the experience of others, to build networking in outreach and to explore the possibility of expanding existing activities and of creating new ones.We certainly plan to obtain as well the participation of science journalists and some high school students.Here is a partial list of goals that we plan to achieve in this workshop:1) Have the participants share the outreach programs they feel were successful in creating interest for math and science in their communities. These activities might include games, fairs, theater plays, excursions, math camps, public performances, publications, special lectures, etc.2) Have participants discuss what makes particular outreach activities successful as well as what the ongoing or unresolved challenges are (sponsorship, staff, publicity, types of needed expertise, location/logistics, budget, scheduling, media coverage, technical, ongoing momentum, etc.)3) Discuss outreach experiences that were successful in getting women and minorities to consider mathematical sciences as a career option.4) Present success stories in partnering with the media, with business people, with celebrities, etc.5) Consider how and where it might be possible to partner on existing successful programs (translate, host, financially support, handle local logistics, etc.)6) Examine the possibility of building joint international outreach activities.7) (Very ambitious) Explore the possibility of finding an international sponsor that would support a particular activity (math contest, international math camp, or other). Perhaps Boeing, Microsoft, Apple, etc.?Here are some comments on this project made by key world leaders interested by math outreach:-- Nick Woodhouse (president of the Clay Math Institute) wrote: "This sounds a very interesting idea... you can certainly say that CMI is interested in being involved in the workshop..." -- Peter Trapa (MSRI) wrote: "The BIRS workshop you are proposing sounds very timely, and I could easily imagine several people associated with Math Circles (including those working directly with the National Association of Math Circles) participating." -- Marcus du Sautoy (Clay Math Institute) wrote: "Thanks for the heads up about this. It would certainly be a meeting that would benefit the community. Even within the UK I think that many people aren't aware of the whole range of activities that go on. It would be a great forum for people to learn what, how and why certain activities are so successful." -- Chris Budd (vp of UK IMA) wrote: "I am very excited by this plan and want to give you my fullest support. Your list of topics looks excellent to me."Although there are many international meeting on math education held each year all over the world, it is very rare that we hear of any meeting on math outreach. Therefore, we believe that holding an International Math Outreach Workshop is long overdue and that it will greatly benefit the international mathematics community.