International Conference Highlights Country’s Math Deficiency

Education experts and professors from around the world gathered over the weekend in Phnom Penh to discuss ways to strengthen mathematics in Cambodia and other developing countries.

Presenting topics ranging from implementing math lesson plans to using a graphic calculator, representatives from 26 countries attended the International Conference on Science and Mathematics Education in Developing Countries at Zaman University in Tuol Kok district.

Chan Roath, president of the Cambodian Mathematical Society, said he hoped the conference would help bolster the field of math, which he said was crucial for Cambodia’s development. No mathematics PhD programs exist in Cambodia. Only four Cambodians currently hold doctorate degrees in the subject while there are just two Master’s Degree programs in the country, but both are equivalent to Bachelor’s level courses by international standards.

“Cambodia is far behind other countries in mathematics education quality. The government never used to consider it a priority, but this conference has attracted more attention to mathematics,” Mr. Roath said.

The primary reason for the poor state of affairs is low teacher salary, Mr. Roath said.

“They don’t teach properly and aren’t motivated to do research,” he said.

At the primary school level, July’s mathematics final examination mustered a 0.06 percent average score for students, with only 53 among 90,000 students earning an A grade.

But the problem is not a lack of student capability, said Lin Mongkolsery, a mathematics teacher at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia. Mr. Mongkolsery said a lack of funds, educated faculty, facilities, and lack of demand are major impediments to the subject’s success.

“Math isn’t popular in Cambodia because most students think they can just teach after a BA or MA [in mathematics]. In other countries, you can work for a company or banks after” [earning a mathematic degree], he said.

And the situation reflects poorly on Cambodia, Mr. Mongkolsery said, noting that aspiring mathematicians have to go abroad to realize their potential. In order to break the cycle, he urged those students who earn a mathematics PhD abroad to return to Cambodia and teach.

Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, who met with a delegation from the conference, said that the government will assist in finding sponsorship to increase mathematics teachers’ salaries, develop math curriculums and update teaching methods with new technology and textbooks.

Mr. Sok An’s promise of funding amounted to the most interest the government has exhibited so far, Mr. Roath said.

“This is something countries like China and India have understood,” said Michel Waldschmidt, a mathematician who was vice president of the International Center for Pure and Applied Mathematics when it established a mathematics Master’s program at the Royal University of Phnom Penh in 2007.

“Mathematics are everywhere, especially in technology, and a country cannot be economically successful without…good mathematicians,” Mr. Waldschmidt said.

Ana Ferreras, who works to secure scholarships for Cambodian students seeking to earn degrees abroad, said at the conference that mathematics is the basis of the country’s development and leads to many career opportunities, including engineering, architecture and finance.

Mr. Roath agreed: “A lack of attention to mathematics is hindering the country’s economic and technological advancement.”

“Without math, we can’t think critically and solve problems efficiently.”

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