For Allan, Building Math Literacy in Ghana Happens Book By Book
The great jazz composer Duke Ellington once said that problems offered people the opportunity to do their best.
Collins Allan (PhD, Engineering and Industrial Applied Mathematics, 2018) is putting that maxim to the test in his efforts to bring a high level of competency in mathematics—via much-needed textbooks—to college-level students in his native Ghana.
Ghana, said Allan, is a country known for the quality of its education. As a result, many migrate to the country in order to take advantage of myriad opportunities.
But educational resources, like textbooks, have always been limited. That was true when Allan was a young student at the John Teye Math and Music Club, Presbyterian Boys Secondary School and Sixth Form Science College.
“Access to STEM books”—which refers to Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics—“were quite limited. I had to visit the university library whenever the need for a book arose,” he recalled.
So Allan is addressing the country’s scarcity of advanced textbooks at the grass-roots level.
Currently, he has gathered a cache of around 4,000 books—many donated by CGU’s Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMS) and the private libraries of the late IMS professor Ellis Cumberbatch and the parents of IMS Professor Allon Percus.
“I am in talks to have them housed at any of the three major universities in Ghana,” Allan said. “Access to the books, which are intended for students between ages 20-35, will also be extended to the public.”
Other IMS faculty who have contributed a significant number of textbooks are John Angus, IMS Director Marina Chugunova, and Ali Nadim.
Enhancing Mathematical Literacy
What kinds of books do Ghanaians need? They run the gamut, said Allan.
The books that he’d collected include volumes on applied mathematics, physics, and engineering. On the mathematics side, he said areas of emphasis include books addressing differential equations, statistical physics, probability theory, combinatorics, and other areas of discrete mathematics. Regarding engineering, these books are about structural, transportation, aerospace, electrical, mechanical, and biological engineering.
“There is also a fair collection of material on recreational mathematics” he added.
In addition to his plans for donating these books to university libraries in Ghana, Allan has plans to increase the number of scholarly publications and make them available to mathematics and engineering students.
“This project is a relatively new endeavor,” he explained. “I really got serious about it during the COVID lockdown in 2020. A lot of brainstorming and persuasion is going on as we speak.”
He said the inspiration behind this effort comes from the opportunities and lessons that he learned during his own educational journey.
“I want to leverage what I’ve experienced in advancing higher education in STEM and how to strengthen existing frameworks in Africa,” he said. “Developing a publishing scheme would require more collaboration with existing educational institutions. That is in a nascent state at this time.”
Attracted to IMS’s Real-World Approach
In 2018, Allan received his doctorate in Engineering and Industrial Applied Mathematics through a joint program between California State University, Long Beach and CGU’s IMS.
At the time when he enrolled at IMS, Allan said, he was working as a State of California licensed engineer in civil engineering for the city of Los Angeles and running Allan Engineering, his own consulting firm.
“I read about CGU and its school of mathematics,” he said. “CGU was in the top 3-5% tier of universities in the U.S. and within distance of my work and housing. I visited the campus and met with some of the professors. I liked the curriculum and how practical it was for engineers. I was really attracted to the Math Clinic program that annually tried to solve challenging mathematical or mathematical-related problems in industries.”
Cumberbatch, a key architect of CGU’s math programs, was leading the clinic at the time.
“The clinic was being headed by Dr. Cumberbatch and they were working on all these challenging problems brought on by the aerospace industries,” he continued. “Dr. Cumberbatch accepted me into the PhD program, and, if you know anything about Ellis, he was a very practical sort of person and I liked that. I also liked the quaint and quiet vibe of the campus.”
Cumberbatch was a powerful influence—along with B. Andreas Troesch, a professor in USC’s Department of Aerospace Engineering (Allan’s alma mater)—in persuading Allan to pursue further education in advanced mathematics.
“I had a long history of discussing mathematical concepts with him,” Allan said. “Although his area of specialty was mathematic physics, my contact with him explored many regions of interest beyond my areas of specialization.”
Cumberbatch challenged him, Allan said, and helped him to acquire an overall vision and understanding that brought all of the STEM disciplines together. His future goal is to develop STEM programs and teach them to African students. He knows that this goal will involve administrative hurdles.
“Breaking through bureaucracy everywhere can be challenging,” he said. “This includes in Africa. But a doctorate in both mathematics and engineering affords me the space to be impactful and break through the red tape. It grabs attention, which is sometimes good for getting things done.”
Furnishing textbooks and training is a crucial step in providing ongoing mathematical literacy at the highest levels in Ghana. He said he is most serious about engineering a complete solution that will help generations of STEM students in the years ahead.
And, thanks to books donated from the libraries of Cumberbatch and his colleagues, Allan is bringing a little bit of IMS to Africa with him, too.
- Interested in assisting Collins Allan? Send a message to him (firstname.lastname@example.org) about his Ghana project