By Carla Reiter | Photo courtesy of African Institute for Mathematical Sciences

In a Cape Town classroom in South Africa, a budding climatologist from Cameroon ponders an environmental model; a physicist-in-training from the Central African Republic takes careful notes; and an ambitious, young computer scientist from Ghana raises her hand to ask a question. At the front of the classroom stands a University of Chicago scholar.

This is the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, a pan-African initiative to teach the most talented African university graduates in high-level mathematics and prepare them for graduate study or careers in the math-based sciences and engineering. During a July 2015 visit to South Africa, Provost Eric D. Isaacs signed an agreement with AIMS to involve UChicago faculty and graduate students in AIMS research and teaching centers in five African countries for stints as teachers, researchers, and tutors. In addition to South Africa, AIMS centers also are located in Ghana, Senegal, Cameroon and Tanzania.

“We think this is great for African countries and great for the University of Chicago,” says Ian Solomon, UChicago’s vice president for global engagement. “This is going to be the best sort of partnership, in which both sides will get tremendous benefits from our interaction.”

In time, the University plans to broaden the association to involve Argonne National Laboratory and to develop new curricula around experimental physics. Some UChicago faculty, students, and alumni have already begun the relationship.

“Our faculty are really excited to build partnerships in Africa,” says Isaacs. “It gives them an opportunity to go there to teach and develop new research programs with scholars and students from African universities.”

Provost Eric D. Isaacs (right) signed an agreement in July 2015 with Thierry Zomahoun, executive director of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in South Africa. It provided opportunities to involve UChicago faculty and graduate students in AIMS research and teaching centers. (Photo courtesy of African Institute for Mathematical Sciences)

Elisabeth Moyer, an associate professor of geophysical sciences at UChicago, taught two three-week sessions of climate science at AIMS when she was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University. “I was so excited to be able to participate in the program,” she says. “It’s everything you ever thought was important about being an educator all wrapped up into one.”

Immersive academic experience

The experience is intense: AIMS crams a yearlong course into three weeks. Innovative teaching methods are encouraged. (The University will help faculty and students develop teaching materials.) “They’re trying to give the students independence of thought in a boot camp kind of situation,” Moyer says. “You’re trying to teach not just the basic material, but how to think about it, interact about it, be confident in your own assessments, and use critical thinking.” The goal is to prepare the students for the transition to an exploratory style of thought needed in a graduate program or a profession that makes full use of their abilities.

UChicago scholar Elizabeth Moyer with AIMS students
Assoc. Prof. Elisabeth Moyer (with red scarf) taught climate science at AIMS while a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University. She recalls, 'It’s like everything you ever thought was important about being an educator all wrapped up into one.' (Photo courtesy of African Institute of Mathematical Sciences)

Moyer taught the introductory climate physics and environmental modeling at AIMS that she now teaches to beginning graduate students at UChicago. “In fact, some of the lessons I assign in our introductory class are lessons that I developed for AIMS,” she says.

AIMS students come from all over Africa, speak many languages, and have diverse academic backgrounds. But they all have keen minds and are highly motivated. Moyer discovered that one of her students was sending his problem sets to friends in the Central African Republic who hadn’t been able to attend the program. ”He and his friends wanted the information so badly. How can you not respond to that?” she says.

Daily life at AIMS is organized to give students, teachers, and researchers as much contact as possible. Teachers and researchers—often eminent figures in their fields—join students for meals and often socialize after hours.

Students from the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences share their experiences. Video Link: (Courtesy of African Institute of Mathematical Sciences)

That immersion is part of what makes AIMS successful, says Karl-Dieter Crisman, SM’99, PhD’04, a mathematician at Gordon College who just returned from his second AIMS stint. “It’s very hard to be only half-involved,” he says. “But because it’s only three weeks, you’re not derailing your entire life.”

Crisman values AIMS as an opportunity to “build human capital” in his field. “Finding ways to expose people to something you find fascinating and that you think more people should be doing: To me, that’s really compelling.”

Experience deepens research, networks

Sam Meehan, a postdoc conducting high-energy particle physics research at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, spent a year as an AIMS tutor after receiving his PhD from UChicago in 2014. He found the experience both difficult and rewarding, but he also found that the cliché about mathematics being a universal language was true. “You could be at a chalkboard and never speak English, but by working with equations, they would understand and learn.”

A graduate student makes a one-year commitment to AIMS, which can seem daunting for a young scientist. Student and supervisor must work out the details of the time away. But Solomon, who spent a year in South Africa while a student, says, “This is not a year off; it’s a year deeper. It’s a great chance to develop new professional networks, new colleagues, and new skills.” 

It is also an opportunity for a richer graduate education, says Isaacs. “You’re still going to have your PhD research and thesis, the regular training. But you’ll have an additional component, which is to engage a broader range of students with innovative teaching methods. And I think a lot of universities will place high value on that.”

Meehan feels that his AIMS experience deepened his own work. “The way I do my research and the way I go about my profession is more mature than it would have been had I not done it,” he says. “In graduate school you get so focused, and the type of people that you interact with professionally can be so narrow that the bar doesn’t get raised across the board. AIMS offers the opportunity to grow in ways that you cannot in graduate school.”

For Moyer, the impact was more fundamental. “It was a life-changing experience because it reminded me why I wanted to be in academia in the first place,” she says. “The idea that I could directly change someone’s life by bringing my professional skills to them was really wonderful. It’s directly related to my wanting to become a faculty member because it reminded me what the point was.”

Originally published on February 1, 2016.