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The Mathematics for Sustainable Development (MaSuD) Erasmus+ project combines two educational issues: math anxiety and raising awareness on environmental issues. Math anxiety is defined as “the panic, helplessness, paralysis, and mental disorganisation that arises among some people when they are required to solve a mathematical problem” (Tobias & Weissbrod, 1980). Math anxiety is usually linked with the curriculum and teaching styles experienced in the classroom which often focus on memorisation and recitation, emphasising a black-and-white, right-or-wrong approach (Finlayson, 2014). Even students with high academic performance suffer of math anxiety. Environmental issues are increasingly present in our society. Implementing the European Green Deal (EU climate neutral by 2050) is possible if Europeans are aware of environmental issues. Raising awareness through education for sustainable development is possible by involving all disciplines, including maths.
To address these two educational issues, we decided to create the context of learning mathematics through open-ended environment related problems. This context was, in fact, represented by the maths research workshop.
The maths research workshop
The maths research workshop for students replicates research activities carried out by professional researchers. The workshop capitalises on the students’ inventiveness and creativity, inviting them to discover mathematics, sciences (including computer sciences) and to carry out research work in this field. Throughout an academic year, working in small groups, the students look for mathematical solutions and do computer modelling for a problem/ research topic formulated by researchers in the field of ‘hard’ sciences. The students’ activity is facilitated by a teacher and supported by a professional researcher. After the research activities proper are over, the students seek opportunities to share the results they have obtained – for instance, in scientific conferences, students’ congresses, etc. In addition, the students write research report articles in which they share the research topic, how they approached the solution to the problem and the results they found. The research report articles authored by students are published on the website MATh.en.JEANS, after they are reviewed by an editorial board.
To support the students in their work, we organized learning activities during which the students:
- attended lectures on research methodology provided by maths and environmental science researchers,
- participated in study visits to learn about environmental issues (e.g. – protected areas),
- discussed with representatives of environmental organizations, and
- worked in groups with their peers from the partner schools.
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The research topics
See below some examples of some open-ended problems the researchers and teachers proposed to our high-school students:
Your school wants to put a maximum of solar panels on its roof to help reduce its use of conventional energy. Estimate the possible number of solar panels, taking into consideration the efficiency of the system for one year.
After a first phase of researching relevant criteria involving transporters and students, the students will have to develop a model of the carbon impact caused by the students coming to school.
This model will be changed to measure the modifications that this may cause. Examples of modifications: optimization of the routes to school, change of means of transportation for some students.
To model in a simple way the dispersion of the pampas grass, imagine a square garden, divided into nine identical plots. The reproduction of the plant is by means of spreading its seeds, of which we will assume, for the sake of simplicity, that a fifth remain in place, the other four fifths being dispersed in equal parts on the adjacent plots. Develop the system by placing the starting point in one of the nine plots and by assuming the first plant provides a unit of seed at its first flowering.
The students’ work
In MaSuD, students worked on these problems – and on other environmental research topics – and explained their specific impacts on the environment; they designed solutions by mathematical modelling and explained how their solution helps mitigate negative impacts. The students shared their research results in the MATH.en.JEANS Congress and through scientific posters.
During the project activities we observed that learning mathematics through open-ended problems allows students to overcome math anxiety and acquire various concepts (related to math or not) and thinking skills.
“The Mathematics for Sustainable Development project was a very nice experience that I would like to repeat. I enjoyed the learning activities because we were able to communicate and meet a lot of people while doing mathematics. I enjoyed the fact that I had the opportunity to attend some lectures delivered by researchers who talked about the environment and about applied mathematics and I also loved the fact that I was able to work in groups and make a very nice presentation at the MeJ Congress.” (Diana H., 11th grader at Colegiul National Emil Racovita Cluj-Napoca, Romania)
“Working within the MaSuD project, I learnt a lot of stuff. I learnt about what sustainable development means and how big is the impact we have on the environment. I learnt how to write a research article, to create a scientific poster, and about teamwork & communication. My participation in the MeJ Congress was an extraordinary experience because I met passionate people and I had the opportunity to see various approaches to finding solutions to the research topics.” (Raluca A, 10th grader at Colegiul National Emil Racovita Cluj-Napoca, Romania)
“Working in this project, I learnt about how to properly conduct and present research, I learned about the importance of choosing the best approach when working on something. I finally understood that I can use my maths knowledge to address authentic problems and that real-world problems might be explored only by making connections between different school subjects. I also interacted with a lot of people I couldn’t otherwise have interacted with.” (Victor S., 11th grader at Colegiul National Emil Racovita Cluj-Napoca, Romania)
Instead of a conclusion
Combining sustainable development and mathematics can have several significant benefits for both students and society as a whole. Here are some reasons why integrating sustainable development into mathematics learning experiences is valuable:
- Real-world Relevance: Incorporating sustainable development topics into mathematics lessons/ workshops allows students to see the real-world applications of mathematical concepts.
- Interdisciplinary Learning: Sustainable development issues are multifaceted and require a holistic approach.
- Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving: Sustainable development problems often involve complex data analysis and decision-making.
- Ethical and Global Awareness: Sustainability education encourages students to consider the ethical implications of their decisions and actions.
- Environmental Stewardship: Mathematics can be used to understand and address environmental problems, such as calculating carbon footprints, analysing energy consumption, or assessing the impact of waste generation.
- Empowerment and Hope: Teaching mathematics within the context of sustainable development can inspire hope and a sense of empowerment in students.
Ariana-Stanca Vacaretu is a mathematics teacher and teaches high-school students at Colegiul National Emil Racovita from Cluj-Napoca, Romania. She has been a Scientix Ambassador since 2016. She has been promoting inquiry based learning, and the development of scientific literacy skills and transversal skills through STEM subjects.
Finlayson, M. (2014). Addressing Math Anxiety in the Classroom. Improving Schools, 17, 99-115. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1365480214521457
Tobias, S. and Weissbrod, C. (1980) Anxiety and Mathematics: An Update. Harvard Educational Review, 50, 63-70. https://doi.org/10.17763/haer.50.1.xw483257j6035084
Vacaretu, A.-S., Proal, H. (2016). Doing Math as Researchers Do It – Syllabus for elective course. Second Edition. Retrieved on July 21, 2023 from http://matlanproject.weebly.com/uploads/4/2/9/1/42916225/curriculum_elective_course_en_final_aug.pdf