Solving real-world problems through mathematical modelling

Teaching young students how math applies to the real world can not only boost their interest in math in elementary or secondary school, but may entice them to pursue the subject in university. 

Associate Professor Hongmei Zhu of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics in the Faculty of Science is on a mission to teach students the real-world applications of math. It’s a challenge she and several of her colleagues have taken on after noticing a gap. They’ve reached out to schools in the community to make a difference. 

Many elementary and secondary teachers don’t teach computational modelling problems to their students in part because they aren’t familiar with it. “They also don’t always realize how it helps students gain critical thinking, problem solving, communication skills and teamwork skills,” said Zhu 

Professor Hongmei Zhu and her team

This is where Zhu and her team, including fellow colleagues and graduate students, can better prepare teachers by holding workshops specifically for them. It gives them the tools and understanding to teach these types of math problems to their own students. They also gain awareness of how computational modelling can foster engagement in, and an appreciation for, math.  

“We want to help increase math literacy for students from Kindergarten to Grade 12 so they can think critically and solve new real-world challenges innovatively in the future,” says Zhu. “Math is a language and it provides a set of tools. It is not abstract. It’s very relevant and constantly evolving because we need to create more math tools to solve new real-world problems.” 

Students often complain they don’t see how math relates to the real world, but after using math to answer questions like “out of all the hospitals within commuting distance, how do you know which provides the best non-emergency care? they can better see how it can be applied beyond the classroom. 

Since 2016, Zhu and her team have held the International Mathematical Modeling Challenge (IM2C) for Ontario high school students. By 2018, with the help of a $25,000 Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) grant, 22 teams participated of which 13 successfully finished, including one from British Columbia.  

In addition, Zhu and her team hold March Break and summer camps, and a Science Odyssey event focused on fractals. For some students, it has been life changing. After the camps, they have gone on to pursue math biology or applied math at university, surprised by how interesting math can be.