Math outreach in Panama during the pandemic

To kick off my time at the JMM, I attended Jeanette Shakalli’s talk on math outreach in Panama during the pandemic. Shakalli is the executive director of the Panamanian Foundation for the Promotion of Mathematics (FUNDAPROMAT for short), a private non-profit foundation promoting the study of mathematics in Panama and around the world. The organization’s two main goals are to inspire youth to pursue a career in STEM and to show the general population that math is fun and has many interesting applications.

Since its launch in March 2020, FUNDAPROMAT has held over 190 virtual outreach events, drawing more than 20,000 participants (both kids and adults of all ages) from Panama and other countries. The events are free to the general public, and most are held in Spanish.

Shakalli discussed an impressive array of programs that her organization has run. The most popular, she said, are virtual origami classes in which origami artists connect paper folding with mathematics. For example, you can visualize the famous sum 1+½+¼+… (which converges to 2) by folding a strip of paper in half repeatedly and unfolding it to reveal the creases.

Women mathematicians have given talks on math modeling, math without numbers, the game of SET, and other topics. Shakalli also mentioned FUNDAPROMAT’s success in running webinars on recreational mathematics – magic and math, probability games, magic squares, sudoku, and more – and how math permeates everyday life. In weekly Math Jamborees (jolgorios matemáticos), kids and adults split into separate breakout rooms to do fun math activities created by volunteers from Panama, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, and elsewhere.

Screenshot from Jeanette Shakalli's talk on math outreach in Panama during the pandemic. Image shows three flyers in Spanish promoting math outreach events held in 2020.

Shakalli gave several examples of webinars held by FUNDAPROMAT showcasing ways that math is all around us.

Shakalli closed with some tips for those of us who might be interested in running our own outreach events to spread the joy of math. First and foremost, it’s crucial that the speakers are passionate about math and use straightforward language that everyone can understand. For promoting the event, she suggested choosing a catchy presentation title and creating promotional flyers that spark curiosity. 

In our virtual world, working out technical issues in advance is important. Shakalli recommended using a registration link in order to get a sense of how many people will attend, as well as doing a dress rehearsal of the event the week beforehand. Sending out a questionnaire to participants after the event is a good way to get feedback and figure out how to make the next event even better. 

I was glad to hear about the work that FUNDAPROMAT and similar organizations are doing to promote math in the Spanish-speaking world. The large number of people who have attended FUNDAPROMAT’s events shows that the general public has an appetite for math – we just have to present it in a friendly, fun, and accessible way.

Shakalli’s talk was part of the AMS Special Session on Mathematical Outreach: Engagement Opportunities and Best Practices. The session continues this afternoon from 2:15 to 6:05 pm MST. I’m looking forward to catching some more talks about math outreach and learning about other creative ways to engage people with math.

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