Factiva Dow Jones & Reuters

Teaching students to love math.

424 words
4 December 2001
(c) 2001 Business World Publishing Corporation.

Hijackings, bombings and kidnappings posed no threat to 72 local and foreign professors who converged in Manila recently to pay homage to renowned graph theorist Frank Harary. His pioneering work in graph theory, an applied branch of mathematics, has touched on 36 disciplines, including psychology, economics, social sciences, art and architecture.

Hosted by the Ateneo de Manila University and sponsored by companies such as Manulife Financial, Fujitsu Philippines and Software Ventures International Corp., the conference on Graph Theory and Discrete Geometry celebrated Harary's 80th birthday and provided a venue for the meeting of great minds in mathematics.

While it enabled University of Southern Mindanao calculus and geometry professor Estrellita Agpalza to finally meet Harary - who until then had only been a name she encountered in the 1969 book he authored, "Graph Theory" - the conference was an occasion for others to look back on their beginnings.

Prof. Koh Khee Meng of the National University of Singapore had always wanted to be a math teacher. Love for the subject, coupled with his passion for teaching, motivated him to pursue a math degree. In college, Koh was invited to lecture at his high school, an experience which gave him some insight on teaching. "You have to keep your students inspired," he said.

Being complex and abstract, math is often intimidating. It takes a good professor to help students appreciate the subject, said Prof. Thelma Galliguez of the Mindanao State University in Marawi City. She has taught there for 30 years. "Any math teacher will tell you that it was his own instructor who inspired him," she noted.

University of Western Australia professor Cheryl Praeger always starts with the basics. "When I begin a new lesson, I tell my students: This topic is linked to what you already know; it's only more difficult than the last one."

Seeing mathematics as "a great way of describing the world," Praeger, ever the concerned teacher, maintains a website which provides her students access to literature some of them can otherwise barely afford to buy.

Agpalza echoed Praeger's opinion. "Assume that your students know nothing," she advised. "Explain the subject to them as you would to a grade-schooler." An "accidental mathematician," Agpalza was initially a Forestry student at the University of the Philippines in Los Banos. "I found myself, excelling in mathematics during my freshman year and decided to shift courses the following semester."

Over the recent years, competitions, exhibits and television programs have popularized math and given it a much-needed boost.

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