The problem: There is a crisis in school mathematics in Australia. Just as the digital revolution is hurtling us towards a future in which strong foundational skills in science and mathematics will be more in demand than ever before, participation in advanced high-school maths is collapsing, standards are falling and the gender gap is widening. Moreover, if you come from an under-resourced background, you’re even more likely to leave school without any formal mathematics qualification, so perpetuating the vicious cycle of social inequity.

Our solution: The Institute for Enquiring Minds is an educational initiative, based in the inner northern suburbs of Melbourne, dedicated to helping under-resourced school students improve their maths skills. The Institute is founded on two simple principles. We believe that by working one-on-one with enthusiastic experts, young people can be helped to reset their mathematical self-belief and expectations of success. We also believe that a resource sharing approach is essential to promoting social equality and strengthening the social fabric of communities. The Institute synthesises these twin principles by pairing students, The Institute’s ‘Scholars’, who are either struggling or under-challenged, who are keen to learn but cannot aff ord private tuition, with maths wizards, The Institute’s ‘Mentors’, individuals so passionate about maths they are willing to donate two hours a week to share their enthusiasm and knowledge. To those who could most benefit from but least afford individualized mathematical support we aim to provide free, high quality, one-on-one mathematical mentoring.

How it works: Paid maths tutoring can cost anywhere from $35 to $100 per hour. The monetary value of a terms worth of two hours per week tutoring is therefore of the order of $1000 — simply out of reach for most families. Unless, that is, they win an Institute for Enquiring Minds Scholarship. These awards are strictly for committed students and afford the successful applicant 16 hours of face-to-face, one-to-one mathematical mentoring. By explicitly attaching the $1000 value to these scholarships we are acknowledging the expertise and exceptional social commitment of our Mentors as well as the dedication and effort we expect of our Scholars. The costs associated will be met by The Institute and its benefactors. As the programme grows, the public and private sector, both local and national, will be invited to become named sponsors of Scholarships.

Applying for a Scholarship: To become an Institute for Enquiring Minds Scholar a student must first be nominated. The Nomination Pack contains two forms — one for the applicant’s parent/guardian and one for the maths department of the student’s school. If this nomination is accepted, the student is then asked to enter into a Contract of Commitment with the Institute, covering The Institute’s expectations of a successful Scholar, in particular with regard to attendance and eagerness to learn.

What makes us special: No one else offers what we offer: free, one-on-one, face-to-face maths mentorship. Our program delivers a unique brand of private tutoring that money literally cannot buy — our mentors, handpicked to ensure they have the highest mathematical credentials, are so passionate about their subject and so socially committed they are willing to tutor and mentor without charge.

Our Mentors: We have a multi-strand volunteer recruitment plan. The undergraduate mathematics students of Melbourne University have already demonstrated an inspiring commitment to our program. We anticipate similarly enthusiastic support from the other Melbourne based universities. Volunteers will also be sourced from existing community engagement/outreach programs initiated by banking, engineering and IT corporations as well as maths experts amongst Melbourne’s retired population. With the help of internationally renowned mathematicians such as Prof. Arun Ram (Department of Mathematics, Melbourne University) and Prof Terry Speed (Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research) we’ll actively assist our volunteers in terms of best-practice mathematical pedagogy and facilitate the development and maintenance of a shared repository of data and support materials.

Our Scholars: It has become normal for high school maths classes to contain multi-year-level abilities. Teachers, already struggling to progress through a mandated curriculum at the required pace, inevitably focus on the middle of the ability spectrum leaving many students unable to participate and others under-extended. It is from this pool of students that we’ll draw our early adopters. They will have been unable to access traditional tuition due to financial constraints but will be motivated to learn and prepared to commit to a term’s worth of two hours per week of one-on-one tutoring sessions.

Mathematical mentoring: On a term-by-term basis students commit to meeting with their mentor for two hours per week. The usual approach will be for the student and mentor to initially work through the school-set homework. A student who has completed the set homework will feel empowered to participate more fully in their next school class. Time permitting, with the homework completed, technique and knowledge gaps will be addressed. By committing to a regular engagement over an extended period the mentor and student will build a relationship which will not just help develop the students mathematical understanding, but also dispel prejudices of who mathematicians are and what it can feel like to do maths.