Asghar Ghorbanpour has a bag of chia seeds in his desk drawer, but he’s not snacking on the tiny superfood. He brought them to his office to use in a model to bring math alive for hundreds of London children and teens, emblematic of a wider effort from the Western professor to connect community members with the university’s math department.
In the end, he opted instead for black sesame seeds, which worked better to hold their place in the homemade frame Ghorbanpour used to demonstrate the Monte Carlo method at Western’s Math Camp.
It’s one of many outreach activities he has spearheaded since joining Western in 2020. For Ghorbanpour, it’s about sharing and spreading the fun of math.
“My daughter is seven years old, and I want to tell her how joyful my days are when I’m learning new math. Like music or art, I have to find a way to show her and others that math can bring joy. How do you do that? Let students come in and experiment,” he said.
That’s exactly what Ghorbanpour does with Western’s Math Camp, Math Challenge and a new program he spearheaded last year called the Western Mathematics Exposition Competition. It’s what earned him this year’s Award of Excellence for Outreach from the Faculty of Science.
“There are aspects, when you show them, they get excited, and you want them to experience this excitement. The hope is at the end of the camp or activity, that excitement is so sweet that they will come back,” he said.
New outreach methods find new audiences
It was important to Ghorbanpour to run several programs in different styles to attract new students to Western’s outreach activities, not just those who would traditionally be attracted to math contests. The majority of those who registered for the newer offerings – about 70 per cent – were not involved in existing Western math programs.
He gives high school students the chance to experience the excitement of math by learning to apply its principles to their own lives and develop creative solutions to problems.
It’s part of what prompted the creation of the exposition, a poster-making competition in which participants study a math-related topic like a famous expert or a theory and learn to display their findings in an academic way. Groups of two and three work under the guidance of a mentor – either from their own school or from Western – and the top three teams each take home $1,000 in winnings.
The final posters blew Ghorbanpour and his team away.
The three-day summer math camps, which target Grade 9, 10 and 11 students over the course of three weeks, introduce participants to a variety of careers and real-world applications using math. Guest speakers including Western grad students and professors share insights, experiences and lessons.
Ghorbanpour has already expanded the program to multiple age groups since he took the reins of the camp, and he intends to keep growing, perhaps adding a fourth week or one tailored to Grade 8 students.
Each day has a theme, based around a mathematical concept that isn’t taught in the high school curriculum, discovered through experiments.
“The interesting part is that they love those topics the most,” he chuckled.
Ghorbanpour works not only with elementary and high school students, but also with math teachers across the London region.
“This is our brand – we want to get that out, to let students know about Western math, and be persistent so they don’t forget. We are here, but if we don’t reach out to them, they won’t see us. Let’s bring them in, and keep bringing them back, so they cannot forget us when the time comes (to choose a university).”
‘Encourage the next generation of scientists’
Professor Jeff Hutter, acting dean of the Faculty of Science, said Ghorbanpour’s work to bring new generations of learners to Western impressed his colleagues.
“Professor Ghorbanpour has been especially active in math outreach since his appointment in 2020. In this short time, he has played a key role in virtually every outreach activity in the department of mathematics. Notable contributions were refreshing the content of our Summer Math Camp and expanding it to incorporate a wider range of ages, as well as organizing Math Challenge, an extracurricular program offered by local math teachers and retired teachers. In their nomination letter, the Chairs of Mathematics and Statistical and Actuarial Sciences noted that they were ‘left wondering how he possibly finds the time and energy to do all that he does.’”
Since its inception in 1999, the award has recognized faculty and staff members who have made “significant contributions to outreach.”
“We view outreach as an important responsibility to the community, both to engage with the public and to encourage the next generation of scientists,” Hutter said. “Mathematics outreach is particularly important to showcase its fundamental importance across all disciplines and to combat perceptions that it’s ‘too hard.’”
Ghorbanpour, who earned a master’s degree in pure mathematics in Iran before coming to Western for his PhD, has brought others from the math department into the outreach world through guest lectures, judging panels and volunteer roles.
He credited his colleagues and others in his personal life for their help generating new ideas and programs.
“I am consistently supported by my department, colleagues, our students, my friends, and family in developing and realizing ideas for outreach activities. It is a privilege for me that they are willing to listen, discuss, and share their thoughts, feedback, and experiences on any idea, no matter how unconventional or small,” Ghorbanpour said.
Working on outreach programming provides a great chance for faculty, post-doctoral students and staff at Western to connect, too, he said.
“It builds a team within the department – otherwise you wouldn’t know parts of your own community,” Ghorbanpour said.
“We’re coming together to show the important research we’re working on in this department.”
STAY IN THE KNOW
Join the outreach mailing list to stay informed of programs run by Western’s mathematics department: https://www.math.uwo.ca/outreach/index.html.