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Vocations and talent

A hundred young people take part in the ‘Cross-border Mathematics Saturday’ in Figueres

The event was designed to show young people the importance of mathematics in today’s life


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A hundred young people took part in the third edition of the ‘Cross-border Mathematics Saturday in Alt Empordà’ on 1 February 2014. The aim of the event was to encourage children’s interest in mathematics and show them how important it is in today’s world. Among the participants were 11th- and 12th-grade secondary school students from Alt Empordà, Girona, Sant Feliu de Guíxols and Ceret, in French Catalonia.

Would you like to know how to construct a regular polygon with only a ruler and compass? Did you know that modern espionage is linked to Internet shopping? Do you want to know how much it costs to transport an iPad from China? These were the questions posed in the three workshops that made up the event.

The activities began at 9.30 in the morning and ended at around 2.00 in the afternoon at the Ferran Sunyer i Balaguer Integrated Education Centre in Figueres. The event was coordinated by Jaume Aguadé, Head of the Mathematics Department at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB).

The hundred young people taking part in the event came from 18 secondary education centres in the counties of Alt Empordà, Baix Empordà and Gironès and also from French Catalonia. Almost half of the students attending were girls.

In this edition, the talks and workshops focused on three themes:

  • Geometric constructions with a ruler and compass. On 29 March 1796, an 18-year-old mathematics student called Carl Friedrich Gauss had an idea that led him to discover a way to draw –with a ruler and a compass, and impeccable mathematical precision– a regular polygon with 17 sides. The workshop consisted of creating specific geometric constructions, of increasing difficulty, which tested the skills acquired and posed interesting challenges for the participants to solve.
  • The art of encoding messages: Cryptography, a battle of wits. Cryptography, which provides methods for encoding messages or for revealing their content without authorization, is one of the mathematical applications that most fascinates everyone. Despite this, very little is known about its history and the tools it uses. The workshop revolved around a competition to decipher encoded messages.
  • Sea freight transport and Fermi problems. Sea transport is used to move the greatest quantity of freight in the world. Container ships can transport huge amounts of goods at low cost, over great distances and connecting different countries and continents. In the workshop, the participants were asked to resolve a series of increasingly difficult Fermi problems (first introduced by the Italian Enrico Fermi [1901-1954] and which approach the solution in different way) set in different contexts.

Each session included an informal talk and a workshop-contest on each theme with teams of two students. The winning teams and runners-up in each of the three themes were chosen from these groups, and they have been invited to attend the IMPULSA Forum 2014, which is organised by the Prince of Girona Foundation.

The winning teams and those that came second all received a digital tablet.

In this 3rd edition, the winners were Lena Hilfiker Tomas and Nicetu Tibau Vidal, from Cap Norfeu Secondary School in Roses, in the Geometric constructions with a ruler and compass workshop; Pol Muñoz Pastor and Pau Batlle Franch, from Jaume Vicens Vives Secondary School in Girona, in the Art of encoding messages workshop; and Judith Bellido Orta and Lluís Sabater Rojas from Llançà Secondary School, in the Sea freight transport workshop.

In addition to a lead professor, the workshops were also supported by volunteer monitors who were students taking a Degree in Mathematics at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. Their participation was an opportunity for them to interact on a more personal and informal level with young people with a common interest in science.

The goals

The event was organized with the principal aim of demonstrating the presence of mathematics in today’s world, both in the various scientific branches (including social sciences) and in new technologies; to foster an interest in and scientific vocations connected with mathematics; to encourage team work and active participation in experimentation and problem solving; to situate mathematics and its different branches in the context of real, everyday problems and place a group of secondary school students with an interest in mathematics in contact with high-level professional mathematicians and students taking mathematics degrees, with the aim of showing the participants what professional mathematical activity is really like.

Thus, the organizers have underlined that their main goal is to “break away from the idea that mathematics is a remote science that is invisible and difficult to understand in order to help young people see that it has a great deal to do with culture and everyday life”. “And to do so particularly at a time when mathematics plays a fundamental role as a common language for all sciences and is so vital in technological development”.

The organizers

The Prince of Girona Foundation believes that supporting young people is a way to strengthen their capacity for building a better and more solidary society, and it pays particular attention to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is an area in which the Foundation hopes to become a global platform and to set the benchmark for promoting progress and talent through projects in which young people play a leading role. The foundation’s main activity centres on four lines of action: fostering entrepreneurial spirit, children’s academic success, improving employability, and nurturing mathematical vocations. It is precisely this last line of action that provides the framework for the diverse activities aimed at fostering young people’s interest in scientific vocations, such as the “Cross-border Mathematics Saturday in Alt Empordà”.

The Ferran Sunyer i Balaguer Foundation was set up in 1991 with the main objective of honouring the memory of Ferran Sunyer by encouraging mathematical research. Every year the foundation presents the Ferran Sunyer i Balaguer International Award, the Ferran Sunyer i Balaguer Grant and the Mathematics and Society Award. The Board is formed of the Chairman, the General Secretary and the Chairman of the Science and Technology Section of the Institute of Catalan Studies, the Director of the Mathematical Research Centre, the Chairman of the Catalan Mathematics Society and other members of Catalan universities.

The event was supported by Figueres City Council.

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