AIMS and expectations

As you drive westward from Accra to Cape Coast, at a point on the highway somewhere in the vicinity of Mankessim, you may notice a roadsign among the babel of street vendors and billboards for evangelical churches — not to mention those characteristically Ghanaian enterprises with names like “Proverbs 10:10 Tool Shop” that seem to combine the two. The sign tells you that you are now 20km from the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences, AIMS-Ghana. It’s the first indication that you are headed somewhere rather special.

AIMS-Ghana, seen from the main road from Accra to Cape Coast.

AIMS-Ghana, seen from the main road from Accra to Cape Coast.

AIMS itself occupies a site perched on a small hill just outside the fishing town of Biriwa. The main building is a splendidly eccentric construction that, though it was originally a hotel, must surely have been waiting for mathematicians to arrive and prove appropriate inhabitants. In fact, both the design and situation are more rational than at first they seem: on its hilltop, facing the sea, it’s effectively designed to catch any cooling breeze there is and to provide the maximum area of shady balcony for visitors struggling with the relentless West African humidity and heat.

AIMS-Ghana is one of the younger campuses of the AIMS project; the current cohort of students are only the second to pass through it, while the parent institute in South Africa has recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. Like its siblings, AIMS-Ghana aims to provide a high-level taught Masters degree in mathematics to students drawn from across Africa, in the hope of building up the critical mass of mathematically well-educated Africans required to improve the continent’s universities and its scientific development generally. It’s unashamedly both an elitist and a meritocratic project, trading under the banner of the “Next Einstein Initiative” and with financial backers including Google. Scholarships are provided to all students; there’s a conscious effort to recruit from as wide a range of countries as possible; and at least 30% of the intake are female.

The model of teaching at AIMS is unusual, a cross between a summer school and a conventional Master’s. Taught courses are delivered mostly by guest lecturers, each of whom gives thirty lectures over the space of three weeks (usually two such courses are running at any time); the final project, also supervised by guest lecturers, lasts about two months. (Enter the Dominie, thanks to the James Clerk Maxwell Fund and an understanding Head of Department.) This drinking-from-the-firehose approach would annihilate normal students, but fortunately the students at AIMS are not normal. First, they are extremely bright, as the ratio of about ten applicants to each place suggests; second, they are exceptionally committed to their study. Sleep appears to be an optional extra for some of them: tutors and lecturers report students turning up at half-past midnight bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and with questions to ask. It’s categorically the only place I’ve taught where someone has felt it necessary to leave a note on the chalkboard in the atrium pleading with students to take some time off:

Serious student...

That’s not to say that AIMS feels like a cramming factory — and indeed, one of the tutors told me, compared with highly-motivated postgrads in North America the AIMS students are refreshingly unfixated on grades. Rather, they’re keen to learn mathematics: conscious that they’ve been given one of the best chances to do so that they’ll ever get, and absolutely determined to make the most of it. The atmosphere may be intense, but there’s also a collegial quality which reminds me again of summer schools. One of the excellent features of AIMS is that everybody, staff and students, eats together three times a day, generally on one of the balconies overlooking the sea, and the conversations round and across the long wooden tables are fascinating to listen to. They include, of course, football; they include swapping notes about each others’ countries (and a certain amount of banter arising from this); they include earnest debates about the boundaries between pure and applied mathematics; and they include a degree of raw innocent ambition that I’ve not met since I was in my late teens and just starting at college. If everybody’s expressed ambitions were realised, half of Africa’s future for the next two generations would have been worked out round that AIMS dinner table, and I can think of far worse places for that to happen.

One of the things about which I was curious was how the teaching at AIMS actually works. The official instructions to lecturers are clear that they want classes to be interactive and to involve students in exploring and developing ideas for themselves. It sounds like a showcase for a “progressive” approach to mathematics education, and indeed the doyen of Ghanaian mathematics, Prof. Francis Allotey, is on record making some highly orthodox statements about the inefficacy of traditional lecturing. In practice, I’m told, the difference between an AIMS-Ghana course and a good lecture course elsewhere is not to be found in the classroom so much as out of it. It may be hard at AIMS, as it is everywhere else, to develop genuine interaction in a class where students are encountering ideas for the first time, but once they have had a chance to think about things then they have no inhibition about seeking out the lecturer and pursuing their questions — hence the celebrated half-past-midnight interrogations. It’s a difference, in other words, not of educational structure but of educational environment: the culture of AIMS-Ghana seems to share a quality with that of the greatest universities and schools, where it is considered natural to be curious, and natural to be immersed in one’s subject seven days a week, whether in or out of the classroom. In the UK we tend to associate that culture with institutions that have had decades or centuries to develop it as a tradition. It’s encouraging and humbling to see it planted and flourishing within two years, and it’s an astonishing achievement.

The other educational aspect of AIMS that fascinated me was the use of resources. By African standards, I suspect, AIMS is exceptionally well equipped: it may be subject to frequent power spikes when the grid electricity cuts out and the on-site diesel generators fire up, but all students have access to laptops and even fairly decent wireless internet — unless one of those spikes has happened to knock out the network for a while. There is one big air-conditioned classroom; there are printing and photocopying facilities, albeit with a gentle rationing system in place for paper; and the ground floor hosts a library which, though it’s lopsided and clearly assembled largely from donations by visitors, wouldn’t shame most maths departments with which I’ve been associated. Compared with any higher education institute in the developed world, what it lacks is access to electronic resources: it has no online journal subscriptions, and the students become adept at identifying freely available material. I suppose this is a great advert for the societal benefits both of open access publishing and of those piratical websites hosted in places like Belarus that offer downloads of copyrighted publications for free; educationally, especially when one is trying to steer a student through a literature review, it offers all the confusions and frustrations associated with study at the University of Google. I’d probably climb the walls trying to get serious research done there — and this suggests one of the frustrations that many of these students will face as they try to build their academic careers in Africa — but it does stress what can be achieved with a relatively small budget focussed on the essentials.

Being the sceptic that I am, I was of course looking out for the downsides to AIMS. I’m not going to discuss the complaint that a mathematical institute is an odd thing to establish on the edge of a town that’s still short of sewers. That’s a different charge, and I’ll merely comment that some of the staging posts of my own education were established before sewers too. But I did want to know whether the enthusiastic praise I’d heard from colleagues who’d visited AIMS campuses should be balanced with a dose of more cynical reality.

The main point, I guess, is that other institutions may not be able to learn much from AIMS, simply because it and its students are exceptional. I can’t imagine the three-week course model going down a bundle with my usual classes, and the arrangement whereby students and staff live, work and eat together in the same building is about as far as it’s possible to get from the practicalities of an urban commuter university. But it’s also not fair to phrase this as a criticism: no-one criticises an albatross for not being an auk.

Perhaps the most obvious challenge facing the lecturers and tutors of AIMS, on a day-to-day basis, arises from the admirably pan-African nature of the project. The current cohort of students at AIMS-Ghana includes representatives from sixteen countries, with sixteen different educational systems. Inevitably their mathematical backgrounds vary immensely, not just in terms of the subjects they have covered (and there are some odd gaps here), but also in terms of their mathematical maturity — it’s apparent that some of them, having got to the Masters stage of their education, are just now learning to think like mathematicians. Their combination of fierce commitment and raw intelligence means that even the less well prepared students don’t tend to fall by the wayside, but it’s possible that in these intensive three-week courses they feel a little like tourists taking away no more than a few impressions of a great sprawling country (or, perhaps, like a visiting lecturer doing the same). Not that this is by any means a worthless experience…

Another challenge will be keeping the benefits of AIMS within Africa. The Institute advertises a remarkable success rate in this direction, with more than 60% of AIMS alumni still working within the continent — and given that some of those who’ve used the international recognition factor of their AIMS degree to find a PhD position abroad will surely return, the long-term retention rate may well be higher than this. (I was very pleased one night to find myself sitting next to a fellow visitor, originally from Congo, who’d used AIMS as a stepping stone to a PhD in Belgium and was now, with a permanent academic position in South Africa, returning to AIMS as a lecturer.) From conversations around that dinner table, though, it was apparent how great the differences in prestige and prospects are between different parts of the continent. In particular, South Africa is palpably more attractive and prestigious to many of the students than anywhere else, including their own home countries, so there is a certain tension between the wish to take their skills back home and the requirements of building their own careers. It’s a tough choice, and not one that I envy them; but even if AIMS only manages to establish an international African base of talent in a few countries then that will be better than seeing their best students inevitably drained towards Europe or America, never to return.

One other detail worries me, perhaps unnecessarily, for the long term. Among the compulsory courses in the AIMS MSc is one entitled “Entrepreneurship & Professional Development”, which seems oddly out of place in an academic mathematics programme. I don’t know the details of the negotiations that put it there, and it may be a harmless obeisance to the peculiar contemporary belief that the world’s problems could be solved if more people thought more about money, but it still feels like a pagan altar set up in the Temple. I hope — to change metaphors — that it never becomes the unguarded back door through which AIMS is captured, like so many educational institutions before it, by corporate interests and their apologists. (And yet, if the price of avoiding that were to be no more funding from Google or from governments, then who would care to pay it?)

Worries like that, though, would be far too sour a note on which to end. What I brought away from AIMS was not worries, although I think I came away with a greater sense of the immense task that the Institute has set itself. My abiding impression is of — to use that useful phrase of Gramsci’s — pure unbridled optimism of the will. It’s as refreshing as a jolt of cool water from a wonky Ghanaian showerhead on an afternoon when the thermometer’s been stuck at thirty and the hygrometer at 95% for the last nine hours, and the air is sizzling with the sound of crickets. What I can learn from AIMS, I think, is not directly about teaching, or directly about mathematics; it’s what it feels like, for a little while, to be where you don’t have to explain why education matters or why learning is one of the greatest things in life. Next time I lose my way in the slums of apathy in Scottish education, I will close my eyes and try to imagine myself back on one of those sunstruck but wind-lifted balconies, facing the ocean from AIMS.

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One Response to AIMS and expectations

  1. A footnote. I keep my blog anonymous in order to protect my job security, and that means it usually seems inappropriate to name in it my colleagues or anyone else with whom I’ve had personal dealings. It would also feel wrong, though, not to thank the AIMS team — and especially Prince, Benedicta and KK — for everything they did to make my visit so enjoyable and remarkable. So, if you’ve stumbled across this blog then, whether or not you have a shrewd idea who I am… thank you.

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