The mathematical expectation
Clocking up 100 truancy days in his final year at high school did not cause too many ripples on the pond of Professor Jonathan Borwein’s education. At the tender age of 15, he progressed to university with ambitions of becoming a historian.
However, when he graduated with honours from the Canadian University of Western Ontario at 19, his degree was in mathematics, not history.
Internationally recognised for his contribution to mathematics and computing education, Borwein remembers vividly his split-second epiphany to change careers.
"When I started university, I was much more interested in history, the fine arts and the counter culture – it was the sixties!
"But in the moment I had to decide, I suddenly realised if I studied history, I would not be able to read a mathematics book in five years’ time; though if I took maths, I could still enjoy a book about the Napoleonic Wars when my degree was done."
That decision by the visiting Professor from Canada’s Dalhousie University has been validated time and again over a prestigious academic career that has also encompassed his passion for the importance of a well-taught maths education.
"Even though my education was accelerated, I was still bored at school because I was never challenged."
With his own schooling as the impetus, Borwein has led the way in the development of cutting-edge computer programs illustrating complex mathematical ideas with an educational software company he co-founded in Halifax 12 years ago.
Designed for use at school and university levels, the highly interactive educational mathematics programs make the subject an easier pill to swallow for students who struggle and offer a rabbit hole into a mathematical Wonderland for advanced students.
The software’s magic is its ability to bring maths alive. Suddenly, what was an abstract mathematical concept to a bewildered pupil becomes a geometrical pattern – something tangible and real, rather than a jumble of never-ending numbers.
Borwein believes very young children are eagerly receptive to maths but all too often lose interest along the way – partially because of a widespread lack of tools to help teachers.
"There are lots of opportunities but they have to come from a much tighter coupling of the research, science and education communities, as well as the general community and teachers themselves."
Borwein’s interest in maths education is meshed inextricably with his research, which spans pure, applied and computational mathematics as well as high-performance computing.
During his year at the University of Newcastle, Borwein will develop a world-class centre for computer-assisted research in mathematics and its applications. This includes establishing a communications laboratory for research on how technology can be harnessed to bridge the gap between what students learn in class and its real-world role.
"In Canada, we had an ambitious project called Virtual Researchers on Call. It puts postgraduate students and research academics directly in touch with school teachers and classes to break down the barriers of education," he said.
"The lab we are setting up here is a smaller but more modern version of what I had in Halifax and I will be using it to find out which parts of the technology framework we can use in that wide spectrum."
Another multimedia teaching tool Borwein champions is the University's new remote collaborative learning tool, an open-source software called Access Grid, which lets lecturers give classes to students across remote locations, as well as to those in the lab.
Borwein has used the Access Grid in Canada to run the Coast-to-Coast Seminar, an hour-long mathematical and scientific presentation simulcast to universities across the country.
"It is two-way communication, using high quality audio and large multimedia screens," Borwein said.
"You can see who is fidgeting or if a group is not paying attention. In a curious way, there is a greater intimacy between participants because you can see facial gestures and the environment very clearly."
With lectures given from the Access Grid lab in Newcastle, Borwein will present a specialist course in "experimental computer-driven discovery in mathematics" to seven Australian universities.