His penchant for numbers is as strong as it is polished. Calculus, algebra, geometry, money numbers, name it, nothing quite excites Timothy Aleko half as making sense of numbers does. Except his is an acquired fascination; acquired long after mathematics could influence the choice of his career.
The 26-year-old graduate of urban planning from Technical University of Kenya was nothing close to a mathematics genius in high school. In fact, the subject was a constant bully to him and ran roughshod over him. At one time, he scored an esteem-damaging 15 per cent during a class test.
When he posted an impressive B-minus in his KCSE in 2010, the grade was better than he had bargained for. This may have been too modest to enable him to go after a maths-related course, but it helped to boost his self-confidence. He thought his journey with mathematics had come to an imminent end. Only it had not.
“I volunteered after high school where I taught mathematics at a local school in Nakuru. I also visited a number of schools in the county, giving motivational talks on mathematics,” Aleko says of the genesis of his new pursuit.
This way, Aleko had offered himself to beat for others the path he was afraid to take, all which culminated in the birth of Young Astute Mathematicians Club in 2013.
“My team of volunteers visit schools to encourage excellence in mathematics among primary and secondary school learners. We demonstrate to learners how some of the mathematical concepts work while trying to erase the notion that mathematics is difficult,” he explains.
The club is registered by the Registrar of Societies. Some of the participants in the 20-member team include Leah Waweru, Collins Onyango, Mike Baraka, Josphat Njuguna and Dianah Amimo, all former students of Menengai High School in Nakuru County.
“The role of mathematics is well articulated in all the fields of human civilisation, from engineering to technology, from natural sciences to humanities and social sciences. It is a universal language that explains the world as it is,” Aleko says.
His inspiration? The desire to change the course of things. After all, he says, Kenya has persistently performed dismally in mathematics during the national exams since independence.
Students mostly fail in mathematics because of what Aleko calls the “student factor”.
“This encompasses elements such as learners’ attitude towards mathematics, lack of self-motivation to explore the math world, which results in poor preparedness for math tests,” he says, and reasons, “If my change of attitude delivered a B-, I strongly believe that mentoring students early on would help to deliver even better results than mine.”
In his view, the menu for excellence in mathematics contains a heuristic attitude and personal initiative to explore the subject beyond what is taught in class.
“Our highlight whenever we visit schools is to drive the emphasis that mathematics is not for a chosen few,” he says.
“There are other equally significant factors such as teaching methods employed by mathematics teachers, availability of teaching materials and even the teachers’ attitude towards the subject, all which lead to poor performance. We address this by motivating even the teachers,” he adds.
If the student factor is well-handled, performance would automatically arc upwards, he argues.
The initiative has not only been well-received by schools in the region but it has also been highly impactful. Wherever the team visits, a change of attitude is developed and enthusiasm for maths renewed.
“Since we started, our team has visited hundreds of secondary schools in Nakuru and Baringo counties, and several schools in Nairobi, and met thousands of students with one mission: to debunk the myths around the subject,” he says.
“Kambala Girls High School, a county school in Nakuru, hardly participated in mathematics contests before we visited them. Today, they are one of the strongest competitors in regional mathematics contests,” Aleko says with pride.
The team hopes to conduct an impact assessment study of the programme early next year, six years after it was rolled out.
Resource mobilisation and obtaining clearance from the Ministry of Education have so far been the main setbacks to the initiative. But if time and resources allow, the team hopes to ultimately roll out the programme to all the 47 counties.
“Members facilitate the programme by paying for travel and accommodation expenses from their own pockets. It is a selfless sacrifice considering most of our members are university students with lectures to attend and without an income,” Aleko says, adding that the ministry has been slow to process the permit to allow the team to visit schools without hitches.
Besides visiting schools, the team also interacts with students on their Facebook page “Young Astute Mathematicians”, a platform that enjoys solid traction among lovers of numbers.
If Kenya hopes to achieve its economic blue print Vision 2030, the country had better keep promoting the role of mathematics and other STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects, he emphasises.
These youngsters are impacting the society by shifting attitudes towards mathematics. How are you impacting yours?