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In Egypt, as in the U.S., math education is a constant challenge

Lynn Columba recently traveled to Cairo as part of the People to People Citizen Ambassador Program and its Mathematics Delegation

It took a trip to Cairo, Egypt to confirm something that Lynn Columba had long suspected—that math education is a universally difficult subject.

The moderate Muslim city, one of the largest in the world and home to most than 16 million people, is burgeoning. It’s a historic city struggling to keep pace with a modern world.

That rapid growth has spurred a transformation in the classroom. Primary education is compulsory for Egypt’s youth, regardless of gender, and significant investments in education have resulted in a population that has one of the highest literacy rates in the Muslim world.

The country’s commitment to education came as little surprise to Lynn Columba, associate professor and coordinator for the College of Education’s teaching, learning and technology program. Invited to travel to Cairo as part of the People to People Citizen Ambassador Program and its Mathematics Delegation, she knew of the growing emphasis that Egypt is placing on primary and secondary education.

What she didn’t expect to learn, however, was the similarity that exists between the classroom environments in Cairo and its American counterparts—and the impact that globalization is having on education in both countries.

“There are so many more similarities than differences how we teach mathematics,” Columba says. “The same set of challenges exists for teachers. Are the children engaged? Do they comprehend mathematical processes and story problems? It really makes you appreciate how universal mathematics education truly is.”

The People to People Citizen Ambassador Program promotes international understanding and friendship and the exchange of ideas between teachers in foreign lands. Columba’s Mathematics Delegation was just one of 12 such groups to travel to the Egyptian capital; other delegations included special education, reading education and early childhood development, to name a few.

It was the first time Columba participated in the multicultural program. That her Egyptian peers taught much of the same subject matter while tackling similar classroom challenges was a bit of shock for the former teacher, principal and education consultant.

But her biggest surprise was the advanced role that technology plays in the classroom and teacher training exercises, let alone in contemporary Egyptian culture.

“You hear and read about Cairo and how it is a vibrant, modern city. But you get there and see children—both in and out of the classroom—and you can’t help but think that you’re right back in the United States,” she says.

“The Internet has really opened doors, especially in the classroom. Mathematics teachers visit the same educational Web sites and use the same classroom technologies and applications that are available to us here,” she added.

The renewed emphasis on education in Egypt started in the 1990’s by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his wife, Suzanne Mubarak, whose interest in educational literacy, especially among Egyptian girls, has garnered the support of USAID and other international support agencies.

Columba and her colleagues had the opportunity to visit private and public schools throughout Cairo during her two-week trip, including a tour of the Mubarak Education City, a large complex of six buildings devoted exclusively to teacher training. The “integrated educational city” is also home to a number of schools, playgrounds, teacher training and internet centers, and conference halls.

She had the opportunity to hear from Dalia Khali, the director of iEARN for Egypt, a non-profit global network that enable young children to use technology to collaborative on projects. The network involves more than one million students spanning 120 countries; in Egypt alone, iEARN works with 106 schools serving over 9800 students and 1000 teachers.

Columba also heard presentations from such dignitaries as His Excellency, Yousri El-Gamal, minister of education for Egypt, and Heinz Mahoney, the minister of cultural and social affairs from the United States Embassy. El-Gamal specifically addressed the National Strategic Plan for Pre-University Education for Egypt—a plan that will be implemented in 2007-2010—and the paradigm shift necessary to make change.

But the conversations she had with her Egyptian counterparts were the most rewarding experiences of the trip. She recalls speaking with Samar Hamid, a high school math teacher in Cairo who talked with Columba about secondary mathematics methods for teaching the Pythagorean Theorem in geometry and quadratic functions in algebra.

“It really transforms the way you think about education,” she says, adding that she’ll be able to adapt new perspectives on curriculum development, teacher training, and integrated technology in her own Lehigh classroom. “It was an incredibly rewarding experience.”

--Tom Yencho

Posted on Monday, January 07, 2008

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