Maths remains a stumbling block
In primary and secondary schools the world over some students were taught maths with strokes of the cane, others without books and some in classrooms without chairs. All international students applying for admission to Wageningen Agricultural University have to take an entrance examination, of which the maths section proves a stiff challenge for many candidates
There was no roof on the school. The teacher only taught as long as there was light from the sun and the weather was clear. There were no trained maths teachers in Nepal, and we had teachers from India. They spoke no Nepali and we spoke no Hindi.
You! Two times two times three divided by four plus six minus five is equal to what? In Gambia we had to give an answer in less than five seconds or we would get two strokes of the cane on the palm before it was the turn of the next student.
Language forms a problem in Zambia because lessons are taught in English. When I was teaching fractions one pupil told me that one third was a half. I realised the confusion caused by language, as any fraction is called half in our language.
These are some quotes from a collection of essays written by international students for the Dutch Mathematical Congress, held in Wageningen on April 4. International students were invited to write about their experiences with maths. Most contributions give an indication of the practical and technical drawbacks encountered during primary and secondary school years. Although most of the international students seem to have managed to catch up by the time they arrive in Wageningen, Hans van den Berg of the Department of Mathematics, notices gaps in their mathematical knowledge: But now I'm becoming cynical, we may well face similar problems with Dutch students in the future. A recent study indicated that school teachers and staff at teacher training colleges are noticeably less good at doing fraction calculations than thirty years ago.
According to van den Berg the gaps in mathematical knowledge are mainly due to lags in technology and not to cultural differences. Of course there are differences in the methods taught: I notice for instance that some students use a different way of writing down long division. In that respect I learn new things from students. Van den Berg has found that students from Ethiopia and Mozambique are often good at maths. Chinese students are so good at maths that I often wonder why they have to take the classes here. I nickname them my assistants.
One such mathematical genius from Ethiopia is Edilegnaw Wale. He modestly denies this, but managed to surprise his supervisor by coming up with an alternative method of inverse matrix calculation. Wale graduated with distinction last January from the Agricultural Economics and Marketing programme and is now staying on to write an article based on his thesis research on income inequality and poverty. Wale recognises, however, that it is not a bed of roses here for all international students, although he feels some panic at the mere idea of mathematics or a quantitative subject. This fear is a recurring theme in the essays, but Wale suggests that mastery of maths comes with practice.If you don't practise what you have learned, you forget quickly. According to Wale it was practice that got him through the entrance examination: The Dean's Office sends out sample examinations with answers to all applicants.
All applicants for the MSc programmes have to pass an entrance examination, and for nearly all programmes this involves a section on basic mathematics. The level is equivalent to that of the final Dutch pre-university examination. International students are unanimous in their evaluation of the exam: it's tough. This year we sent out around 1,000 entrance examinations, of which 510 were returned completed, says Evert Kamphuis, admissions officer at the Dean's Office. On average, half of the candidates fail the entrance examination. Van den Berg marks the maths section of the entrance examination: Some of the students taking the maths refresher course are so bad that they couldn't possibly have passed the entrance exam. I sometimes wonder who it was who encouraged them to come and study here. I don't mind as long as I can work with them and teach them something. Admission requirements are the responsibility of the University.
Wim Heijman, Programme Director of the MSc in Agricultural Economics and Marketing, relates that in exceptional cases students who failed part of the entrance examination are admitted. For instance, someone who failed the maths section but performed well in the economics section may be admitted. The University admissions policy is quite strict, but selection works out positively in practice: The level of international students in my programme is good, and they work harder compared with their Dutch colleagues.
International student organisations on Internet
Two organisations for international students in Wageningen recently started their own homepages on the Internet. The Wageningen branch of Perhimpunan Pelajar Indonesia (PPI), the student organisation for Indonesian students all over the world, is connected through WAU's network. According to Hendrie Adji Kusworo of PPI, the homepage offers a service for Indonesian students in Wageningen. It provides local information on Wageningen, accommodation and food, but it also has direct links with other PPI branches, in Japan and Australia, and with an Indonesian newspaper. Most of the information is in Bahasa Indonesia at the moment, but an English version is on its way
The layout of the homepage of the International Club Association Wageningen is very attractive, and there is even a musical accompaniment, but you need a computer with speakers to be able to enjoy this. Two little men shovelling away indicate that this page is still under construction. The page offers general information on ICA, its activities and the monthly programme. There is a nicely designed option for mailing questions and suggestions. First you see a hand writing a letter, then folding it up and putting it in an envelope
New postgraduate brochure
The latest edition of the WAU information brochure on the International Postgraduate Programme was published recently. It includes information on the two new MSc programmes: Gender, Agriculture and Rural Development and the programme on Leisure and Environment. In addition to outlines of the 15 MSc programmes and the MBA programme in Food Industry and Agribusiness, the brochure also contains information on the PhD programme for international students. Over the past decade a growing number of international students have started PhD research at WAU, and this trend is likely to continue. The brochure provides general information on admission criteria regarding the research proposal, supervision and finances