Special Preview: Teaching Numerical Analysis in Cambodia

January 26, 2010

Class photo: On the last day of the three-week numerical analysis course, Angel Pineda’s students gave him statues of dancing Apsaras.
From the March 2010 issue of SIAM News

Angel R. Pineda

My adventure began in the summer of 2007 with a forwarded e-mail request: The U.S. National Committee for Mathematics (USNC/M) was looking for volunteer lecturers to teach in Cambodia. I love mathematics, service, and travel. The possibility of combining these three aspects of my life into a single experience made this opportunity particularly exciting to me. Soon after receiving the e-mail, I placed my name on the list of potential volunteer lecturers.

At the time, I was only vaguely familiar with the circumstances that led to the need for this program. Cambodia is known mostly for the majestic Angkor Wat and for the Khmer Rouge, the extremist Communist regime that was in power in the late 1970s. Khmer Rouge followers believed that the ideal society was agrarian and, in pursuit of this ideal, killed the educated people in the country. Cambodia is still recuperating economically and intellectually. Today, approximately 40% of the population earns less than $1.25/day. Only one Cambodian with a PhD in mathematics, Chan Roath, is now working in the country. The volunteer lecturer program of the USNC/M is part of an international effort to rebuild the mathematical community in Cambodia by offering a master's program in mathematics at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP).

In January of 2008, while traveling through Southeast Asia, I met Michel Jambu, the coordinator of the master's program in Cambodia. I had arranged to spend one day of my trip visiting the class of Pierre Arnoux, a volunteer lecturer who was then teaching a course in discrete mathematics at RUPP. I included that day in Phnom Penh in my trip to Thailand and Cambodia to increase my chances of being chosen as a volunteer for the next year. With 61 names on the list of potential volunteers at the time, it was not so easy to be chosen to teach for free! In part because of that visit, the next year I received an e-mail from USNC/M chair Herb Clemens letting me know that I had been chosen as a volunteer lecturer.

I left for Phnom Penh on Saturday, May 30, 2009. Even during the flight it was clear that this was no ordinary trip. While waiting in South Korea for my connecting flight, I met a volunteer who was working in Cambodia on the removal on land mines. He spoke of the difficulties of working in the country, including the limited resources and the large scale of the problems. He also said that it was only because of the sheer good will of the Cambodian people that the volunteers were able to get anything done. This was a comment that I really understood only at the end of my trip. I was welcomed at the airport by Sok Lin, the RUPP professor who was the host for my visit. My adventure had transitioned from e-mails, airline tickets, and visas to the reality of being in Phnom Penh.

The purpose of my trip was to teach a course in numerical analysis at RUPP. I taught five days a week, three hours a day, for three weeks; the total of 45 "contact hours" is the same as for a one-semester course, but it was exhausting to compress the course material into three weeks. The biggest challenges were my lack of familiarity with the Cambodian educational system and language, and the short time available.

To better understand the background of my students, I borrowed the books they had used in their undergraduate courses in numerical analysis. The students had many gaps in their backgrounds, especially in English, computing, and proofs. Their mathematical education had focused on computations by hand, and one of my main goals was to provide them with skills that would complement the ones they already had. We faced several challenges: In the computer lab, three students worked at each computer. Two power outages occurred during the three weeks; at those times, we would switch to lecture format until the power was restored. Teaching at RUPP made me appreciate the resources I have in the U.S.

The students speak some English, but Cambodian is very different from English, which makes it hard for them to learn. My natural teaching style is conversational, and I had to modify it to be more effective with English-language learners. I spoke more slowly and wrote more on the board than I would in a typical class in the U.S. I also had students present problems in class, which helped them practice their English; when necessary, some of the students helped me explain the mathematical ideas in Cambodian to the rest of the class. Many of the students work full time while enrolled in the university, which restricts the time they can spend outside of class on homework. In terms of scheduling, I had to be judicious in choosing topics to cover and to allow for time in class to reinforce the key ideas.

Most of the students were current or future college professors. By teaching them, we have the potential to help improve the level of mathematics in the country as a whole. Ideally, we are training our own replacements. Before this experience, I had not realized that mathematics education could be a tool for international development. It was exciting to be part of such a critical time in the mathematical development of Cambodia. We hope that some of our students will be successful in graduate programs abroad. There are reasons to be hopeful---some of the students from a previous version of the master's program are now beginning PhD programs abroad.

What made the course possible was the dedication and flexibility of the students and our Cambodian faculty hosts. As a sign of appreciation, one student would bring me a cold coconut every day. The room was hot, and the coconut water was extremely refreshing. As a teacher, it is wonderful to have students who are hungry to learn and who bring you coconuts---like the apple of olden times.

A coconut for the professor on the first day of class.

On the last day of classes, the students gave me two statues of dancing Apsaras (Hindu nymphs), which are important in the history of Cambodia and prominent in Angkor Wat. The students' enthusiasm for learning, even under difficult circumstances, combined with their generosity and appreciation, made me want to go back. I will be returning to teach numerical analysis in Cambodia in July of 2010.

Angel R. Pineda is an assistant professor of mathematics at California State University, Fullerton.

SIAM supported the USNC/M Volunteer Lecturer program by contributing to Angel Pineda's travel expenses; at its December 2009 meeting, the Board of Trustees approved continued support for the program.

Additional information about the USNC/M Volunteer Lecturer program can be found at http://sites.nationalacademies.org/pga/biso/IMU/PGA_045621#vlp. Information about the program is also available at the website of the Developing Countries Strategies Group of the International Mathematical Union: http://www.math.ohio-state.edu/~imu.cdc/vlp/index.php.

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