Making Math Education Fun and Accessible in Latin America

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Jeanette Shakalli ’07 loves math, but she knows not everybody shares her enthusiasm.

“Every time I tell somebody that I love math, they say something like, ‘That was my worst subject!’ or, ‘I’ve never been good at math,’” says Shakalli, a native of Panama.

So, to change their minds, Shakalli created the Panamanian Foundation for the Promotion of Mathematics (FUNDAPROMAT), a nonprofit that promotes the study of mathematics in the Republic of Panama by offering engaging learning activities and math-themed events.

“We’re trying to change the way that [people] perceive mathematics, so they can give math a chance and see that it is fun and has many interesting applications,” Shakalli says. “Math is so broad that there is no way that they don’t like all of math. Usually, if somebody says that they don’t like math, it is because they haven’t had the opportunity to encounter an area of mathematics that works best with the way that they think or the way that their mind works. I want people to continue to discover the beauty and the richness of mathematics. And in this way, we can improve math education in Panama and in the world.”

Shakalli herself saw the fun in math from a young age, which she jokingly blames on her father, who has a doctorate in chemistry. He would help her with homework and studying, often teaching more advanced concepts before they came up in class.

“At the beginning, I got so annoyed, but [later] when my professor in the classroom started teaching that material and I had already seen it, it was a lot easier to grasp. Then I started really enjoying it,” Shakalli shares with a laugh. “Then, I wanted to learn more, and I started challenging myself, trying to solve the most difficult problems in the textbook. That’s how it all started.”

Shakalli participated in Panama’s Math Olympics for several years, even taking home a gold medal one year. Though she excelled at and enjoyed math, Shakalli wasn’t set on studying it when she arrived on campus at Notre Dame. She says she enjoyed exploring different subjects in the first-year required courses, before landing on a double major in mathematics and chemistry. That was also part of the reason she left Panama for her college education. All universities there are specialized for certain industries or subject areas, so she wanted to study in the U.S., where she could have flexibility in her program of study. When Shakalli visited Notre Dame’s campus with her parents, she knew immediately that it was the place for her.

“When I went to Notre Dame, it was beautiful, I loved the campus,” she says. “The people were so friendly, so welcoming. … That’s what made everything click.”

After graduating from Notre Dame, she went on to Texas A&M for a PhD in mathematics. Going home to Panama wasn’t an option if she wanted to study math further — there are no graduate programs in mathematics, and, in fact, she is one of only eight people in the country with a doctorate in the subject. But once she’d earned her doctoral degree, Shakalli decided to return to Panama and work to improve math education there.

“Panama has failed the international evaluations that measure students’ performance in mathematics. In fact, in 2019, Panama ranked 76th out of the 79 countries evaluated in the math section of the Program for International Student Assessment, which is called PISA,” she says. “That is very, very worrisome, and that’s why I feel that a foundation that is solely dedicated to promote the study of mathematics to the general population is necessary.”

Before establishing her nonprofit, Shakalli spent seven years working at the Panamanian National Secretariat of Science, Technology and Innovation, a government office that works to strengthen science and technology in the private sector, government, academics, and the general population in Panama. While there, she created a math outreach program that planted the seed for FUNDAPROMAT. After the change in government administration in 2019, she decided to leave her job and work full-time on promoting math education. The nonprofit’s official launch was scheduled for April 2020, but then the coronavirus pandemic changed those plans.

Shakalli postponed their in-person activities, which include math carnivals that show how math is present in games, riddles, puzzles, magic, and origami, and pivoted to online events. With Panama in lockdown, she hosted virtual events featuring guest speakers who led activities on everything from chess to how math is connected to magic and Latin music. The events are open to children and adults alike, and emphasize fun. While Shakalli’s initial intent was to make a difference in her native Panama, these online events have also drawn viewers from Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Spain and Venezuela. Since April, they’ve hosted more than 60 virtual events, between four and seven each week, with more than 21,000 people signing up.

“Most of our events are in Spanish, because nothing like this exists in the world; Spanish speakers don’t have this opportunity to experience math in such a fun way,” Shakalli says. “So we are thinking about continuing these virtual events, even when we have in-person activities.”

As executive director of FUNDAPROMAT, Shakalli does it all: fundraising from donors and sponsors, facilitating the virtual events, booking the speakers and experts, and running the organization’s social media accounts. And she’s eagerly planning for when it is safe to gather in groups again and they can reschedule their in-person events.

“I am really lucky to have had the opportunity to study at such an amazing university like Notre Dame, and I know that there are a lot of Panamanians who don’t have access to education [like that],” Shakalli says. “And I thought, if they had an opportunity, maybe they might see mathematics in a different light. Whatever made them think it was not fun or not useful, maybe we can change that. At Notre Dame, I learned that we are meant to give back, and the sense that we belong to a greater community inspires me to make a difference. We’re not alone in this world that we live in.” 

Learn more about the Panamanian Foundation for the Promotion of Mathematics (FUNDAPROMAT) at https://www.fundapromat.org/en/ and follow them on Instagram and Facebook @fundapromat