• Anca Mustata

Maths and Art add up at Teachers’ Award

Sarah Tallon and Breda Disney were honoured with the Award for Irish Teachers of Mathematics in Cork on May 26th in the Aula Maxima of the University College Cork.

The award ceremony was special, earning the endearing nickname of “The Oscars of Mathematics” from Prof. Stephen Buckley, MRIA, head of the Maynooth University Department of Mathematics and Statistics. Young Mathematical Olympians captivated the audience with artistic interludes: bass and violin performances from Alison Riordan and Archie Conolly, poetry, inspiring speeches by Laura Cosgrave and Tianyiwa Xie, and a modern dance performance by Sarah Lane and her teammates from the Joan Denise Moriarty School of Dance, Cork. Brilliant student performances promise to become a trademark of the awards: Last year, guests were treated to a performance by eighteen year old Kevin Jansson who played a Chopin nocturne – just a few months before winning the Young Chopin International Piano Competition. Young pianists Antonia Huang and Cillian Williamson also brought in brilliant performances.

The jury, drawn from academics, teachers and a nominated member of the Royal Irish Academy, had the difficult task of choosing 7 finalists from the 150 entries. The finalists all showed exceptional ingenuity in promoting mathematics whilst supporting, as well as challenging, their students. The jury was particularly impressed with Sarah Tallon’s participatory, discovery-based method of teaching, and with Breda Disney’s ability to bring out the best in her students.

All nominated teachers will receive special end-of-school gifts: “Thank You” posters personalised with quotes from their nominations. James Carroll from Cnoc Mhuire Secondary School, Co. Longford explains how teachers feel about the acknowledgement from their students. “The feedback of past students means everything to me and to have someone sit down and take the time to write about my teaching gives me so much encouragement.” The winner Sarah Tallon talks about reading excerpts from her nomination: “I was moved beyond words. For a student to recognise the work that I do to promote Maths throughout the school, and then go to the effort of submitting a nomination, was a validation that my work is appreciated and I must continue at the same level of enthusiasm for as long as I possibly can”.

It is not all about the teachers either! The teachers’ awards also celebrate the student success of the winners of the Irish Mathematical Olympiad (IrMO) 2019. For six of them, this will be the springboard leading to their participation in the 60th International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) - the world championship for school mathematicians. Lucas Bachmann from Glenstal Abbey School, Co. Limerick; Tianyiwa Xie from Alexandra College, Dublin; Linhong Chen from The Institute of Education, Dublin; Alex Hanley from Lucan Community College, Co. Dublin; Laura Cosgrave from Midleton College, Co. Cork and Tim Wang from Christian Brothers College, Cork will carry the Irish flag to the challenging competition in Bath, Uk on 10-22 July, where they will compete with over 600 students from more than 100 countries.

These successful young mathematicians are not limited in the scope of their talents. Students Laura Cosgrave of Middleton College, Cork and Tianyiwa Xie of Alexandra College, who run a wonderful STEM blog, Science Angles shared their experiences from the International and European Girls’ Mathematical Olympiads with speeches of infectious enthusiasm.

As a delightful surprise for students and teachers alike, the ceremony ended with a couple of blues played by a band of mathematicians/engineer from the host institution UCC and CIT.

It takes celebrations like this to remind us that Mathematics is beauty as well as the basis of today’s science and technology and that teachers are the link that can often make the difference in a young person’s life. Former Intel CEO Craig Barrett reminds us of the importance of teachers in the classroom in this technological era. "I have always contended that if you had your choice of just one piece of technology to put in the classroom – just one – it’s a pretty simple choice and the answer is a good teacher".

The Award for Irish Teachers of Mathematics mirrors a number of similar initiatives in other countries, in particular the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’ Teachers Prize, the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching and the Rosenthal Prize for Innovation in Math Teaching in the US. It rewards professional expertise in the subject of Mathematics, effective teaching practices, care for students' development and contributions to the community. The winner receives a prize of €10,000 and a trophy, and the runner up receives €2,000. The award is administered by the Irish Mathematical Trust.

The award is sponsored by the Frank Kenny Fund at The Community Foundation for Ireland for a five year period. The donor has supported the Award on the basis of a lifelong interest in mathematics and a belief in the need to recognise excellence in teaching. The first two editions of the award are also supported by the SFI Discover programme. Student prizes are also largely funded by the Frank Kenny Fund at The Community Foundation for Ireland, and the SFI, with additional support by Alder Capital.

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