Pleasant SAARMSTE’15 in Maputo

The 23rd annual conference of the Southern African Association for Research in Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education, held in Maputo, Mozambique concluded last Friday, after some 200 presentations in 8 parallel session by academics from about 18 countries (mostly SACD region, some USA, UK, Norway, Japan, Turkey, and new Zealand). It was a stimulating event by a welcoming community.

Most maths & science teaching research presentations were concerned with “what goes wrong, and why?” and “which interventions (hypothesised improvements), and do they work?”. I’ll describe a brief sampling of the presentations spread over the 3.5 days to illustrate it. For instance, Frikkie George from UWC looked into why teachers in secondary schools do, or do not, use computer-assisted learning in their teaching [1]. To look at the negative side (for one may want to use technology in the classroom and wonder why it is not always happening that much): this was due to, mainly, the lack of experience with the technology, of on-site support, of availability of the technologies, and of lack of time to integrate it in the curriculum.

A recurring and emerging research theme on the problem-side of things was the “LoLT”–language of teaching and learning (formerly known as ‘medium of instruction’)–, as many learners in the classroom in SADC countries are being taught in a language that is not their mother tongue (called ‘home language’ in South Africa). There were several presentations on this issue, and a whole symposium was dedicated to it. Kathija Adam from NMMU presented a useful literature review [2], which was part of an inter-institutional funded project that started last year, so the main solutions are yet to come. (and I’ll leave it with this ‘cliffhanger’, as much more can be said about it, deserving its own blog post).

There was also the issue of “Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) in the class room and in science”, and I went to a few of those presentations. It is a touchy subject in this region of the world, and to complicate matters, different presenters and attendees had quite different ideas and assumptions about it. From the ‘light’ version: e.g., IKS & weather by Alvin Riffel (also from UWC) in the way like, say, “an evening false moonbow brings rain tomorrow”1, which can then be used as an introduction to the scientific explanation of the phenomenon, relating everyday life observations to science in the classroom [3]. To the ‘heavy’ and un(counter?)productive: a big, fat, loud-mouthed militant claiming that ‘everything is science, including the spirits’ and lambasting ‘and if you go for western science [cf. African], then you are one of those bad oppressive colonialists, racist!’, nipping in the bud any conversation about IKS and science (I’m not exaggerating). Another recurring theme was pedagogical content knowledge (PCK).

My own presentation was about an experiment in peer instruction that, in short, didn’t have the desired effect (increasing class attendance), but was useful in other ways nevertheless (read the 13-page paper for the details [4]). This work will be extended this year, partially thanks to a UCT Teaching With Technology grant to develop a better functioning software-based audience response system, and more concept tests.

Other than that, it was hot in Maputo, full of friendly people, and good food and coffee. The SAARMSTE choir gave its best during the social dinner, which was also spiced up with some dancing. Friday afternoon after the conference’s closing ceremony, I planned to finally go to the internet cafe to check emails, but the bus was for the excursion through Maputo only, so that plan was changed (the alternative was a 20-minute walk in the blistering sun at 2pm and get burned, again). There may not be a whole lot of touristy places in the city, but it mattered not, as we had a good time together anyway. Also contributing to a great stay in Maputo was my choice on being frugal with the accommodation, opting for Fatima’s Place backpackers rather than a fancy hotel (choices: expensive and even more expensive): unlike the conference participant who was lamenting a ‘dull 15-hour stay at the hotel util the conference’s next day’, I had great company in the backpackers’ lively common area in the (late) evening.

The next SAARMSTE in early 2016 will be in Pretoria—a location not even close as appealing as Maputo, but a warm welcome will be guaranteed by its participants (as it was also welcoming in Cape Town in 2013 when I attended the conference).


[1] George, F., Ogunnniyi, M. Teacher’s perceptions on the use of ICT in a CAL environment to enhance the conception of scientific concepts. 23rd Annual Meeting of the Southern African Association for Research in Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education (SAARMSTE’15), 13-16 January 2015, Maputo, Mozambique.

[2] Adam, K., Africa, A., Woods, T., Johnson, S. Exploring issues related to language in multilingual South African Science classrooms: a literature review. 23rd Annual Meeting of the Southern African Association for Research in Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education (SAARMSTE’15), 13-16 January 2015, Maputo, Mozambique.

[3] Riffel, A.D. Examining the impact of dialogical argumentation on grade 9 learners’ beliefs about weather and indigenous knowledge. 23rd Annual Meeting of the Southern African Association for Research in Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education (SAARMSTE’15), Huillet, E. (Ed.), pp366-379. 13-16 January 2015, Maputo, Mozambique.

[4] Keet, C.M. An Experiment with Peer Instruction in Computer Science to Enhance Class Attendance. 23rd Annual Meeting of the Southern African Association for Research in Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education (SAARMSTE’15), Huillet, E. (Ed.), pp319-331. 13-16 January 2015, Maputo, Mozambique.

1The “false moonbow”—called corona, a circular ‘rainbow’ around the moon—phrase I just made up, and is similar to a reading-of-the-sky we have in the Netherlands, and on January 4 we saw an amazing one here, admiring it during a neighbourhood braai, wondering what it might mean. The next day, I made it to work through the heavy rain (in summer!) and looking it up to see what it meant and why… reality very much confirmed the theory, the whole day long.

Preliminary results of the Theory of Computation survey

As you may remember from the post on making Theory of Computation (ToC) more lively, I taught ToC for the first time last year at UKZN, where it also was a new core course in the CS degree programme, i.e., the students and the system also had to get used to ToC. As usual, anything can be improved upon (if you think not: look harder; they always can, at least in theory). To commence with that in a solid way, we’ve decided first to collect some data to go beyond the familiar anecdotes.

Internationally, many stories make the rounds through the grapevine about ToC. Those stories revolve around, among others, it being a difficult subject for the students, low pass rates, the course being threatened from being removed from a the programme, and textbooks becoming out of print (e.g., Pearson does not want to make reprints of Hopcropft, Mottwani & Ullman’s book unless they get single orders for more than 300 books, according to their rep for SA).

While the individual stories are true, how prevalent are they really?  How widespread are ‘low pass rates’, and when is it ‘low’? What are the enrollment numbers elsewhere? Do they have problems in the university system? It being a new course in the programme here as a result of merging a 16 credit Formal Languages & Automata Theory and a 16 credit Algorithms & Complexity, what topics are really essential in a ToC course? Should it be a core course, and if so, in which year of the programme?

These are some of the questions we were curious about as to what the answers would be. To find out, there’s a (still ongoing) survey of ToC syllabi at the various universities around the world and an opinion-survey to obtain data that cannot be found by just looking at syllabi, but concern the context around ToC, like enrollment numbers, pass rates, whether it should be in the programme vs. actually in the programme, and so on. The opinion-survey was open from 16 March to 1 April (accessible here), and I’ve put the preliminary results online, as promised in the announcement. (A paper summarizing the results and integrating it with the results of the syllabi-survey is in the pipeline, but somehow it struck a chord, and relatively many survey respondents wanted to know the results and all the details can’t go in the page-limited paper anyway).

In total, there were 77 people—mainly academics—who completed the survey, mostly from outside SA and covering all continents of the world. There’s the survey setup, results in digested format, discussion, and conclusions, as well as the raw data with aggregated numbers by question answer, and the list of ToC topics ordered by being essential. In short: The survey responses show an overwhelming agreement that ToC should be taught and a majority prefers to have it in the 2nd or 3rd year in an undergraduate programme. It is taught at most of the institutions that the respondents are affiliated with, and the course is mostly solidly in the programme as a core course. About half of the respondents note there are issues with the course, for various reasons, including, but not limited to, low pass rates and low enrollment. Roughly half observe first-time pass rates below 60%, and for only 20% the pass rate exceeds 80%. Whilst noting that several respondent spread ToC content over more than one course or integrate it with other courses, there is agreement on the typical topics that are considered as essential to ToC, covering regular and context-free languages (and grammars), automata (at least DFA, NFA, epsilon-NFA), Turing machines, undecidability, computability and complexity, where the subtopics covered vary a bit.

Several respondents also gave additional feedback and opinion via email. In case you would like so, too, drop me a line, or add it in the comments section here on the blog.