Talking math ‘on the road’ in South America

Five years ago, Paul Loomis, associate professor of mathematics, computer science and statistics, took a sabbatical and traveled with his wife, Leticia Weber, and their 1- and 5-year old children, Zeke and Anne, to the National University of Cordoba in Argentina.

“We had had hopes of doing some traveling,” he says, “but we found that a 1-year-old on the bus wasn’t a good thing.”

After waiting for the children to become better travelers, Loomis took a leave of absence during spring 2012 to return with his family to South America and visit universities.

“I was really curious about how mathematics is taught in a variety of places and how this is affected by economic and cultural realties,” he says.

They landed in Lima, Peru in January, and traveled by bus across Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay and northern Chile before returning to Lima in late June. Throughout his travels, Loomis visited 10 universities, giving eight lectures in Spanish on his specialty, number theory — ranging from specialized talks to professors and graduate students to more general talks to as many as 90 undergraduates.

“It was hard to make contacts before arriving, so I would usually show up without advance notice,” says Loomis. “I would ask to visit classes and offer to give a talk. Everyone said, ‘Welcome, and we’d love to hear you talk’.”

Loomis found that only a small fraction of those who began studies in mathematics eventually received a degree. “Most of the public universities are free if you can feed and house yourself, so a lot of young people try out university,” he says. “Over and over, I was told that about 10 percent make it all the way to receiving a degree. Thus, I could go to a first-year class where the students – prospective math majors – were struggling to learn algebra, and then see a fifth-year class where they are learning things that we don’t get to here. Those that do make it through are quite good.”

Loomis is bringing a few new ideas to his classes this fall, and will offer several upcoming talks on his time in South America. “This trip was even more rewarding, both professionally and personally, that I had hoped.”

Photos and blog posts about Loomis’ travels through South America are on his blog at:

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