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Tricky Equation

After many years of development, there is still a gap in advanced math education between China’s universities and those of developed countries

By NewsChina Updated Aug.1

Participants at the 52nd International Mathematical Olympiad in Amsterdam, Netherlands, July 12-24, 2011

The world landscape of math has undergone great changes in the last 100 years. There are more academic branches in the subject, and hard work rather than talent has played an increasingly decisive role in achieving breakthroughs.  

In 2002, the International Congress of Mathematicians was held in Beijing for the first time. During the event, Chinese American mathematician Shiing-shen Chern (1911-2004), best known for his achievements in the study of differential geometry and topology, said that China has become a “big power” in mathematics and its next goal is to become a “strong power” in the field.  

Math education and research in China have made significant progress, but there is still a long way to go to catch up with developed countries, particularly in cutting-edge areas.  

Formula for Interest 
Chern always said that math must be interesting and if children lose interest, the subject will not prosper. China’s primary and middle schools are facing this problem. Not only are they struggling to arouse interest among students, but they are sometimes dampening it.  

According to Yang Le, a mathematician with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, over the years, China’s obsession with the Mathematical Olympiad remains a problem. He said the international math contest is only suitable for a minority of talented high school students who have a keen interest in math.  

“Several years ago, nearly all primary and high school students joined a variety of Mathematical Olympiad training programs, which has led math education in the wrong direction,” he told NewsChina.  

Yau Shing-Tung, a professor of mathematics at Harvard University, told our reporter that student interest in math is crucial to enhancing China’s research capacity. In 2008, he established the S.-T. Yau High School Science Award, which aims to inspire scientific innovation among high school students all over the world.  

In 2013, China launched the Great Talent program, which recruits first- and second-year high school students who display talent for the sciences to participate in a year-long research project led by noted professors and academics.  

Tian Gang, director of the Beijing International Center for Mathematical Research, Peking University, told NewsChina that while the well-intentioned project has made some progress in recent years, it has struggled to attract interest from schools and parents more focused on preparing students for the competitive college entrance examinations.  

Yun Zhiwei, a math professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told NewsChina that cultivating mathematical thinking is very important. He found that many new math students in university find it difficult to adjust to a mathematical way of thinking. He added that high schools focus more on tangible mathematics such as geometry, which does not properly prepare students to take on subjects like abstract or theoretical math.  

“Studying math is like studying a foreign language. You have to grasp the basic rules first and when you are familiar with these rules you can construct your own language,” he said. “Advanced math requires a strong capacity for thinking that is much more demanding than the problem-solving abilities taught in high schools.”  

Yun said that many people are still caught up in whether math is useful, while some think that math is purely an intellectual pursuit. “Interest is of crucial importance and only those with a focused mind can do well in mathematics,” he said.  

Shiing-shen Chern was an early advocate of fostering interest among China’s youth. During the 2002 International Congress of Mathematicians in Beijing, he wrote a simple inscription for the event: “Math is interesting.”  

Identifying Variables 
Yun Zhiwei enrolled in Peking University’s math department in 2002 and later completed his PhD in math at Princeton University. Yun said that over the years, the curriculum in Chinese math departments covered a wide range of subjects but lacked theoretical depth in comparison with US universities, particularly for graduate students.  

“It’s not necessary to make all math courses very difficult, but talented students who are interested in the subject should have access to more difficult courses,” he said.  

In 2009, China’s Ministry of Education launched the “Training Plan for Gifted Students in Basic Disciplines,” an elite project that offers college-level classes in fundamental subjects to gifted young students. Peking University was one of the universities in the pilot program where math students could take challenging classes in areas including algebra, geometry and mathematical analysis.  

Over the years, other Chinese universities started gifted programs for teens. Chen Qing, director of the young talent program at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, Anhui Province, said that gifted education programs offer access to university lectures tailored to school-age students. There is only one condition – the selected students must be exceptionally talented.  

Yang Le said that Western math education and research dates back more than 300 years, while modern Chinese math education only started 100 years ago.  

In the early 1950s, China adopted the Soviet model and focused on developing its applied and computational math research. On July 1, 1952, the Math Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences was established and noted mathematician Hua Luogeng became its first director. During his inauguration speech, Hua proposed three research directions for Chinese math studies: fundamental, applied and computational.  

He said that fundamental research is the linchpin of all subjects in which researchers should work steadily and not rush to publish papers. Nevertheless, for a long time afterwards, China attached growing importance to applied subjects.  

Tian Gang at Peking University said that over the past 20 years, math teaching resources have significantly improved in Chinese higher education. For example, Peking University has recruited talented young teachers and influential scholars. Students at Peking University have access to cutting-edge math research, he added, but generally speaking there is still a big gap in math education between China and the US.  

Liu Yi, also a professor at the Beijing International Center for Mathematical Research, Peking University, said it is common for top universities in the US to hold seminars on advanced research topics where scholars share their latest research with students. Such classes do not happen in China. Liu added that almost all the experts conducting research in cutting-edge fields live overseas. Many Chinese universities are strong in only one or two research areas and unable to hold similarly wide-ranging seminars.  

Yang said that while research is a priority at many Chinese universities, many young scholars repeat research projects already conducted overseas because they guarantee positive results. 
 
“There is little innovation in many research programs and young researchers only copy the research framework and procedures of overseas scholars,” he said. “They end up saying that they did a better job than the famed overseas professors did, but their work is at most only a bit better in some aspects.” 

Yang Le

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