UPDATED: In an endeavour to boost maths performance in primary and secondary schools, tech investor Sean O’Sullivan has kickstarted the MATHletes Challenge aimed at students with more than €20,000 in prizes.
NOTE: Since we originally reported O’Sullivan launched a €10,000 prize fund, he has since doubled the prizes available to €20,000.
From 1 February, students from 5th and 6th class in primary school and 1st to 3rd year in secondary school junior cycle will compete online against their peers, with a chance to win more than €20,000 in prizes and the title of MATHletes Challenge Champion 2014.
MATHletes Challenge 2014, which O’Sullivan is launching today with the Minister for Training and Skills Ciaran Cannon, aims to help students develop the confidence and competence to excel in maths by introducing Irish students and teachers to the Khan Academy.
Founded in 2006 by the American educator Sal Khan, the Khan Academy is a leader in free online maths education. With more than 10m users per month and 4m practice problems solved each day, the Khan Academy had been successful in accomplishing its stated mission to provide “a free world-class education for anyone anywhere”.
In the MATHletes challenge, students will compete in county and provincial finals, with top scorers advancing to the national finals, which are scheduled to take place in early May. Students will also be able to connect with other contestants by attending free Saturday Khan Clubs which will be held in the National Educations Centres across the country. Students and schools can sign up for MATHletes Challenge 2014 online.
Do the math – 44,500 ICT job openings in Ireland over the next six years
Cork resident O’Sullivan is credited with contributing to two of the biggest trends in computing: as co-creator of the term cloud computing, and the introduction of street mapping on computers. He is co-founder and managing director of Carma (formerly Avego), a 55-person cloud technology firm with offices in the US and Ireland.
O’Sullivan is also managing director of SOSventures International, which boasted returns averaging 27pc over the past 15 years. His first company, MapInfo, grew to a US$200m public company. Among his successful investments to date are Netflix, which just announced 1m users in Ireland and the UK in its first year, and Harmonix, creator of Guitar Hero.
O’Sullivan explained that his motivation for launching the MATHletes Challenge is the necessity for Ireland to advance its position in global league tables for maths, science and literacy. And the estimated 44,500 job openings for people with ICT skills over the next six years also tends to focus the mind.
“At the moment, Ireland is languishing in the middle of the European tables when it comes to student performance on STEM subjects,” he told Siliconrepublic.com.
“There is no reason that Ireland cannot be No 1. The underlying purpose of the MATHletes Challenge 2014 is to help our students develop the confidence and competence to excel in maths by introducing Irish students and teachers to the Khan Academy.
The benefits of the Khan Academy have proven to be highly effective for older students ages 12 and over, O’Sullivan said. “Over the course of a year, students who use the resources of the Khan Academy obtain results that are 20pc better than students with who only have regular maths teaching. Basically, it enables below-average students to be above average, and above-average students to be remarkable.”
As in initiatives like the BT Young Science and Technology Exhibition every year, O’Sullivan said the key to participation by students is good teachers who can lead and inspire their students.
“Teachers are constantly looking for fresh tools that will engage their students and make them motivated. As a teacher, it is infinitely more fulfilling when you have a classroom of energised students who are making progress that a classroom of students that are punching the clock.
“As a parent and former student, I know that competition motivates kids. What happens when you compete against yourself? Against your classmates? Against other students across the country? What happens when you compete for your county and for Munster vs Leinster? Kids get that. Adults get that. The MATHletes Challenge gives students the chance to represent their county and their school at the national level.
“Teachers in Ireland – and around the world – have found the Khan Academy to be an amazing tool to engage their students and deliver results, and allows teachers to be more effective in their classrooms.
“With the resources coaches and mentors can access, and its innovative methods of teaching, the Khan Academy will increase the quality of the teaching in Ireland. In the test pilot programmes we recently ran with the Department of Education in Galway and Athlone, we received really positive feedback from the teachers and the hundreds of students who took part in them.”
Getting Irish school students college-ready
While the past year has seen a welcome surge in maths performance at Leaving Cert level, O’Sullivan said educators, students and parents need to see the bigger picture.
“While 35pc more students sat the higher-level maths paper in 2013 than 2011, the percentage of students receiving an A has not changed dramatically, and still hovers around 10pc. We need to stop reporting on how many students are taking the test and not failing, and we need to start evaluating how many are getting top marks and are really ready for college.
“With the introduction of Project Maths, the changes in the structure of the junior cycle and transition year, Ireland is demonstrating its willingness to embrace education innovation. Right now, the Department of Education and Skills is working with the CoderDojo movement to bring the option of learning how to code into the education system.
“We see a tremendous opportunity to raise awareness of Khan Academy in Ireland through the MATHletes Challenge. Everything we have seen so far has told us that Khan Academy is right for Ireland: for Saturday Khan Clubs in Galway, over 100 kids turn up each Saturday, with another 90 on the waiting list. It’s the kind of success that we first saw in CoderDojo. Education centres around the country are now signing up to give kids in their area the same opportunity.
“Minister Ciaran Cannon introduced the program in Galway and Athlone, and we could not have made any progress in this effort without him and Bernard Kirk and Frank Walsh leading the outreach at the Education Centers.
“We hope to use the lessons we learn on the MATHletes Challenge, and bring Khan Academy to classrooms across Ireland.”
Winning in the digital economy
O’Sullivan said that simply put, students with a strong ability in maths will be best placed to take advantage of the opportunities the digital economy has to offer.
“Mathematics is the fundamental cornerstone in the development of logic and science, and these are the roots of the technical disciplines. Clearly there are roles in high tech that don’t require maths expertise, but competence in maths is something that we all need as human beings.
“The reality is that maths are the foundation of all courses in engineering and computer science. With 44,500 new ICT skill jobs being created in the next six years in Ireland, we need more qualified graduates from STEM courses, and these graduates will all require a world-class maths education. We don’t have that right now.
“Developing a smart economy requires investment in R&D programmes and technology infrastructure, like broadband. However, these investments are useless if there aren’t enough workers to meet the demand from companies who want to relocate to, and grow their operations in Ireland.
“OECD studies have shown that there is a definitive link between how well students perform in cognitive tests and GDP growth, with relatively small improvements in the maths skills of students having a very large impact on the future economic well-being of a country.
“We encourage every student and every parent to get involved in MATHletes, to progress their lives to meaningful, creative work in the STEM fields,” O’Sullivan said.
Video: Khan Academy in action
Disclamier: SOSventures is an investor in Silicon Republic