Campus Life

Removing fear from math

There is no denying that for many high school students, there is a fear factor associated with mathematics. The University of Lethbridge's Department of Mathematics and Computer Science is looking to ease those fears, and in the end, maybe inspire more students to pursue, rather than retreat, from studies in math.

"We need to bridge that gap from fear to fun," says longtime professor Dr. Hadi Kharaghani. "This is a very big issue, to try and show students that there is a fun side to math, and if we can do that it can lead to better understanding."

Kharaghani, along with Drs. Abbas Momeni and Soroosh Yazdani (both former silver medalists at the World Mathematics Olympiad), has partnered with the Recruitment and Retention Project (RRP) to leverage seed funding from the Strategic Enrolment Management Committee (SEMC) to secure support from the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences (PIMS) and the Canadian Mathematical Society (CMS) to create a free Fun With Math program at the U of L.

Since November 2012, the department has invited middle school and high school students to campus, every Friday from 3 to 5 p.m., to take part in fun and informal math problem solving. Students of varying levels of ability are welcome to attend, with the emphasis on presenting math in a fun atmosphere that helps eliminate fear.

"When we get the students here, they quickly see the fun side of math and it really helps them feel more comfortable with it," says Momeni. "The biggest struggle is to get them here in the first place."

To that end, the department is trying to work with middle school and high school teachers to get the word to their students that the program exists. Done right, it can be a major influence on a young student's attitudes, not only toward math, but the University itself.

"I went through a program very much like this when I was a high school student in Ontario and it had a great influence on me," says Yazdani of programs developed by the University of Waterloo and University of Toronto. "I was fortunate to go to a very strong high school but even then, the enrichment program they provided was at a whole new level. They introduced me to so many new concepts and in the end, it worked for Waterloo because I ended up going there over other institutions."

That the initiative started as an RRP project is only natural as it speaks to both the recruitment of potential students and their subsequent retention once on campus.

"It's first about building a relationship with potential students and showing off what we have to offer here on campus," says Heather Mirau, director, Integrated Planning. "We then want to see students succeed once they come here. If they are comfortable with the University and are better prepared when they walk in the door, there's a much greater opportunity for them to find that success."

While just a pilot project now, Mirau sees great potential for the Fun With Math initiative and likens it to the start of the extremely successful youth science programs proudly offered by the U of L.

Yazdani and Momeni currently work with 10-15 students every Friday, and while producing top scholars isn't the goal of the sessions, they have identified a handful of students strong enough to participate in Math Olympiad events.

The group is now putting together a one-day math competition, Apr. 13, where Grade 9-12 students from across southern Alberta are invited to participate. Once again, the day will be unique, offering both group and individual problem solving with having fun the major theme of the day.

"At the end of the day, math is not always individualistic," says Yazdani. "We're trying to make it different than your standard math competition where you lock students in a room with a bunch of problems and see which one of them comes out on top. In this one, we'll have questions where students will get together to solve them, or problems where each person solves one part of the question."

Cash prizes of $300 for the winning team and $225 for the second-place team are also up for grabs.

"We want our department to be known as a good place for students, and this gives us an opportunity to show off what we have here," adds Yazdani. "We also have the idealistic goal of wanting to make math more accessible to young students."

Visit for more information on the Fun With Math program.

This story first appeared in the April 2013 edition of the Legend. For a look at the full issue in a flipbook format, follow this link.