Fostering an emphasis on quality maths education is important for a variety of reasons. Math literacy promotes analytical thinking. Math is the language of science. Math, taught properly, encourages creativity and synthetic “outside-the-box” thinking. An emphasis on math, as part of a broader emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning is also, increasingly, an economic issue. A plethora of studies, reports, and white papers, particularly since the global financial crisis, have stressed the increasing importance of math and computer literacy. According to one study (Microsoft, 2009), more than 90% of European jobs in the near future will require basic competences in math and computing.

Ireland’s STEM problem has its own particular flavor. Due to its small size and centralized system of public education, the “achievement gap” between Ireland’s most and least advantaged students is not quite as dire as it tends to be in larger developed countries (including, most saliently, the United States). For example, it does not struggle to the same degree as the United States with a large contingent of super low-performers (PISA, 2012). On the other hand (anecdotally, anyway), Ireland’s general approach to math education at the primary and secondary levels tends to be rote, procedural, and exam-oriented (although this may be beginning to change with the roll-out of Ireland’s new Project Maths curriculum). As a result, math is too-often associated with “grinds” (a multi-million euro industry in Ireland designed to prepare primary and secondary-level students for the two major state exams, the junior and senior certs), repetitive rules-based learning, and “teaching to the test.”

Funded by the Cork-based SOSventures and led by former Mitchell Scholar Kelly Kirkpatrick, MATHletes Challenge is aiming to change the way Irish kids think about math. MATHletes Challenge is a free, nation-wide maths competition with three phases (training, provincial finals, and national finals), organized in partnership with Kahn Academy. I became involved with MATHletes a few months ago, when Kelly invited me for a coffee. I am now working with fellow Mitchell Mark Brennan and math lecturer/educator Dave Goulding to develop all of the problems for the five in-person competitions. So far, the tournament has been a huge success. Over 3,000 students have signed up with over 10% of all secondary schools participating! Although, with his seemingly limitless (inexplicable?) enthusiasm for Limerick, Mark has managed to incorporate his beloved city into nearly every problem he’s developed. If your problem begins with “Aofie and Caoimhe work at a nontraditional checkerboard factory in Limerick…” don’t look at me.

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