AFRICA: Maths institute AIMS for NextEinstein

Science and technology are powerful forces for progress and, if the continent is to benefit fully from these forces, it needs to build a strong indigenous capacity in both. This is exactly what the African Institute of Mathematical Science has been striving for - and achieving - for the past six years.

Celebrating its birthday last month, the unique institution in the seaside suburb of Muizenberg in Cape Town has good reason to be pleased. In its short lifespan it has become recognised as an educational beacon, successfully building a culture of commitment to Africa.

AIMS was founded by South African Neil Turok as a postgraduate education centre supporting the development of mathematics and science across the African continent. A collaborative project between the universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch and the Western Cape, its foreign partners include Cambridge and Oxford in the United Kingdom and Paris-Sud XI in France.

Despite small beginnings, it opened with just 30 students, AIMS has garnered international recognition as the centre of excellence in Africa preparing students for research and teaching quantitative sciences.

With state of the art facilities, the best lecturers from world-renowned universities and enrolling the cream of Africa's students, the Pan-African institution polishes intellectual gems in the field of mathematical sciences.

"Science is not well developed in Africa yet many modern sciences have a strong mathematical base," says Professor Fritz Hahne, AIMS Director. "We have to improve this base and use it to help solve the problems on this continent."

The non-profit institution, registered as a charity in South Africa and Britain, teaches a nine-month postgraduate diploma in mathematical sciences, a biomathematics honours, and studies to the masters, doctoral and postdoctoral levels.

It encourages applications from mature students, including university lecturers, seeking to upgrade their skills and become more effective teachers and researchers. Application is open to anyone with a four-year university degree in mathematics or any science or engineering subject with a significant mathematics component.

AIMS and the University of Stellenbosch, one of Africa's highly rated universities, jointly launched the biomathematics course this year.

"We started with a small number of students which grew into a fairly large number and we bring the best teachers we can find to get a good result," says Hahne, who worked as dean of sciences at Stellenbosch for 11 years until his retirement to join AIMS.

In its first year, 29 students from 11 countries graduated from AIMS. To date, 254 students have passed through its doors.

"Africa has plenty of poverty but also enormous talent," adds Hahne. "There are highly talented people from poor backgrounds and we're striving to provide them with an opportunity."

Annual fees are R140,000 (US$18,760) and all successful applicants are offered bursaries if necessary. Funding is sourced from local and international institutions.

The Africa Union notes that more than 50% of the African population are women but they are seriously under-represented in the science, mathematics and engineering fields. During the inaugural Women in Science conference in Johannesburg in 2007, the union called for a mechanism to encourage scientific growth by promoting advanced skills for women. AIMS ensures that at least a third of students in all courses are women.

"I wanted to do applied mathematics, but the University of Yaoundé 1 offers only sciences and linguistics," says Lydienne Matchie from Cameroon. "I turned to AIMS. You are not mocked in class as a woman; the environment is relaxed and you can even call your lecturers by their first names. Back home that is not tolerated."

Another student, Trust Chibawara, remarks on the broad opportunities offered, "like meeting the authors of textbooks I study, like Steven Hawking". Chibawara, who is a financial mathematics student from Zimbabwe, says this reveals the resourcefulness of AIMS.

Gashaw Adera, a theoretical nuclear physics masters student, and past student of Alemaya University in Ethiopia, says he learnt to appreciate that problems faced in Africa are numerous but related in some ways.

The students all come from Africa, though there is a strong South African presence. Religions and cultures mix and tolerate each other as part of nurturing skills. Students and lecturers stay and study in the same buildings.

Demand for entry into AIMS in Cape Town is high and more than six applications are received for every place. But with partners across Africa, AIMS has also developed an African Mathematical Institutes Network to encourage collaboration in training outstanding graduates and to connect mathematicians and scientists in Africa to each other and to the world.

When AIMS chairman Neil Turok won the 2008 Ted Prize - an award for significant ideas to improve humanity - he said his desire was to change the world: "My wish is that you help us unlock and nurture scientific talent across Africa, so that within our lifetimes we are celebrating an African Einstein."

It is the vision of Turok, who holds a mathematical physics chair at Cambridge, to expand AIMS across Africa.

A roll-out plan for 15 AIMS across Africa under the umbrella of the NextEinstein Initiative (AIMS-NEI) has been developed. Groundwork has already been laid in several other countries - Benin, Botswana, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Madagascar, Malawi, Morocco, Mozambique, Rwanda, Senegal, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda - to create a web of AIMS Centres. AIMS Senegal will launch in 2011 followed by Ethiopia and Ghana.

AMI-Net has won the confidence of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad) and the AU as one of five flagship programmes in Africa's Consolidated Plan of Action for Science and Technology.

The plan is to support the growth of AIMS-NEI nodes into AIMS centres. By creating a network of centres and partnerships, NextEinstein will also develop opportunities for Africans to study, teach and work in Africa.

But what makes AIMS unique?

The innovative courses, teaching cutting-edge skills and providing exposure to a wide range of science and technology disciplines while serving as a vehicle for cultural understanding and learning among the diverse student population, make the institution stand out.

"We teach students the way to work in the industry: to look at problems and causes and to solve them while acknowledging we are in a multi-cultural community," Hahne explains.

"They're encouraged to respect each other's religion, culture and backgrounds. We have a focused agenda on Africa. If one country has a cholera problem, why solve it for them only? Why not the whole continent?"

Africa's greatest resource is its people. There can be no more effective investment in Africa's future than in education, empowering talented young people to contribute to their countries' development.

"We don't talk much about what we do. We do it and accommodate ideas," says Hahne.