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CCU Atheneum: Merlin Djeutchouang, on left, was a student of Solazzo's last year, and now he is a tutor/graduate student. He poses with  Solazzo.
Merlin Djeutchouang, on left, was a student of Solazzo's last year, and now he is a tutor/graduate student. He poses with Solazzo.

Teaching in Tanzania

by Jim Solazzo
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Editor's note: This is the second year that Jim Solazzo, professor and chair of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, has traveled to Africa to teach at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS). Here is his story.

Each of us has a few defining moments in life. For me, the opportunity to teach a three-week course at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Tanzania has been one of those moments. AIMS-Tanzania is one of five AIMS centers in Africa where students from across the continent have the opportunity to earn a master’s degree in the mathematical sciences. (To date, the program has produced 960 graduates from 42 African countries. Crucial to the program’s success is the inclusion of women. Of the 960 graduates, 31 percent are women, which is successfully transforming the face of math and science experts in Africa.)

This past January, I traveled to AIMS-Tanzania for the second time in two years. When my flight landed, I was greeted with the now-familiar warm evening air mixed with the scent of smoke from the thousands of small fires in the marketplaces throughout the city and countryside. It was good to be back in Africa.

Just past midnight, I arrived at the Alpha Zula compound, which resides in the midst of a small fishing community located in Bagamoyo. It was a stark change from the big city hustle and bustle I experienced during last year’s visit to Arusha, Tanzania.

The Alpha Zulu compound was built by a wealthy Middle Eastern merchant as vacation home for one of his wives, and it overlooks the Indian Ocean. On a clear day you might see Zanzibar from one the compound’s several balconies. The Alpha Zulu compound was an ideal location for an AIMS center, a 24/7 living learning environment where students, faculty and staff spend their time teaching, studying, eating meals and occasionally resting. Fortunately for AIMS, use of the compound by the merchant’s family was minimal, and he was more than happy to lease the property.

Not expecting much, I was taken aback by the beauty of the learning/living quarters, clearly influenced by Islamic architecture. Sky blue domes sat juxtaposed to meticulously tiled balconies. The compound was filled with large, beautifully carved wooden doors, and horseshoe archways were at every turn. In the evenings or on the way back from the beach, students and instructors would meet in the traditional Islamic courtyard located in the center of the compound. And there was always a wonderful ocean breeze flowing through the structure as a result of its ergonomic design.

I don’t know how to describe the AIMS teaching experience other than to say it is exactly how I imagined teaching would be when I was a graduate student more than 20 years ago. This year, my class had 42 students from 15 different African countries. Each lecture was a back-and-forth conversation between me and the students. It was not uncommon for a student to go to the board to explain how he or she understood the problem, and like dominoes, for the whole class to engage in the conversation in a matter of minutes. At the end of the two-hour lectures, there was always a line of students wanting to know more, which resulted in another hour or so of conversation. Anyone who knows me knows I love talking math at any level. This was paradise!

Like last year, the students’ work ethic was nothing short of inspiring. They were constantly working. In the early morning hours, they were busy typing up notes or preparing for an 8 a.m. class. In the evenings, there was a constant buzz from students working in small groups, solving problems at a whiteboard, writing code. Each evening I would retire around midnight, and the students were just getting started. I felt greedy trying to squeeze in six hours of sleep!

The four young men in the photo below were my students last year, and this year they are working as tutors/research assistants for AIMS-Tanzania. From left to right is Merlin Djeutchouang and Dieudonne Mbouna, both from Cameroon, Polycarp Omondi Okock from Kenya, and Mawutor Kofi Amanfu from Ghana. Merlin is developing models to predict rare and extreme events such as floods, earthquakes and tsunamis, global warming, and climate change. Mbouna and Polycarp plan on pursuing doctorates in math and particle physics, respectively. Kofi is working on modeling mosquito populations in Tanzania with the goal of one day eliminating malaria.

These young scientists and innovators are motivated by the desire to advance human society on their continent. I am beyond fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet and work with such beautiful individuals. Their warmth and generosity has touched every aspect of my life. As an educator and a father, these are the stories and examples I want to share with my 8-year-old daughter and with my students, to help define their lives the way they helped define mine.

For more information on the AIMS program, visit www.nexteinstein.org
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