Prominent maths educator Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin has been honoured as this year's recipient of the Maths Week Ireland Award for raising public awareness of maths. It is presented annually during Maths Week Ireland – the all-island festival of maths and numeracy which this year runs until October 18th.
Dr Ní Shúilleabháin, who is assistant professor in the UCD school of mathematics and statistics, is one of the most recognisable faces of mathematics in Ireland, having presented RTÉ’s flagship science programmes The Science Squad and 10 Things To Know About.
She came to national prominence as the Rose of Tralee in 2005, the year she graduated from UCD with a first-class honours degree in theoretical physics, speaking about her time at CERN (one of the world’s most advanced research centres) and shattering the stereotype of those who enjoys mathematics.
Her research in mathematics education has been widely published and she is a member of the STEM Education Policy Review Group of the Department of Education.
“She has proven herself to be a powerful role model, encouraging young people and particularly young women to pursue their interests in mathematics and science,” according to the citation. “Aoibhinn never thought herself to be a ‘genius’ at mathematics and thinks it is important that everyone see mathematics, like any other subject, as something that can be practiced and improved.”
Dr Ní Shúilleabháin said she was “incredibly honoured” to receive the award. “I am passionate about making mathematics accessible to everyone and hope some of my work over the years has encouraged people to pursue their interests and education in mathematics.
"While we have a heritage of some amazing mathematicians in Ireland, such as William Rowan Hamilton, mathematics has not always been accessible to everyone in the country and having an exam 'for girls only', with honours maths available to only an elite few, has allowed the subject to have some historical negative connotations," she added.
She said mathematics in educational and cultural settings should be celebrated and students should be assured “mathematics, like any other subject, can be practiced and improved. In these times where we are bombarded with information and data, mathematical literacy for all members of society plays a hugely important role and I hope to continue to work to improve the mathematics experiences of learners across the country”.
Maths Week co-founder Dr Sheila Donegan said: "Through her internationally recognised work and research, Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin has made an outstanding contribution to the promotion of maths to the public."
Dr Ní Shúilleabháin has been a strong advocate for social inclusion and equality. With colleague Dr Anthony Cronin, she developed the Maths Sparks programme, a series of problem-solving workshops for students of lower socio-economic backgrounds and led by UCD student volunteers. Research has shown that students from lower socio-economic groups are less likely to study mathematics at higher level than their non-DEIS counterparts and the programme has shown to significantly affect students' learning.
As a former post-primary teacher, she has recognised practical challenges facing teachers and pupils, and strives to make the teaching and learning of mathematics an enjoyable experience for all.
On the importance of Maths Week, Dr Donegan said: “We’re all aware how maths is vital in helping drive societal change for the better. Its implementation in problem solving, which is critical in countless sectors in society, reinforces its importance in our every-day lives. [Its purpose ]is to also highlight the many exciting career opportunities for young people, North and South, in roles related to mathematics and mathematical thinking.”
Maths Week is run with support from the Department of Education and Skills; Science Foundation Ireland, the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland, multinational technology firm Xilinx, ESB, universities, institutes of technology, libraries, schools, training colleges and employers – North and South.
More than 356,000 students on the island of Ireland registered for this year's Maths Week events. For details of remaining events see: https://www.mathsweek.ie/2020/