Some winners of the Hang Lung Mathematics Awards (HLMA) followed their passion in mathematics and became teachers after graduation. From student participant to supervising teacher, they draw on their knowledge and experience to illuminate the beauty of mathematics and inspire the next generation.
In this interview, Connections meets with Mr. Anson Chung, a 2010 HLMA Honourable Mention winner and Mr. Alan Fong, 2014 HLMA Gold Award winner. Anson and Alan both majored in mathematics at university and have now become secondary school mathematics teachers. Through sharing their first-hand experiences, they are committed to inspiring and empowering students’ interest and passion for mathematics research.
AC: Anson Chung
AF: Alan Fong
C: Have you liked mathematics since childhood? Was that why you chose to become a mathematics teacher?
AC: I have always loved numbers more than words! When I was in kindergarten, my mother bought me a whiteboard and used it to teach me multiplication tables. That was how my love for numbers came about. I began to receive Mathematics Olympiad training in primary school, and later in secondary school I participated in different mathematics competitions, including HLMA, where I achieved pleasing results. On that account, I would say that mathematics has been, and would always be, a part of my life. Whilst in Form 6, I took up the role as a junior teacher and taught my younger schoolmates mathematics. Seeing my “students” progress, from being perplexed to being able to find solutions on their own, gave me a sense of accomplishment, and sparked my interest in teaching. In 2020, at the invitation of the mathematics subject head, I was delighted to start my teaching career at my alma mater Hong Kong Chinese Women’s Club College.
AF: You could say that I am passionate about mathematics! I studied mathematics in depth in Form 2 and Form 3, and was always eager to seek out related books to read on my own. Later, I participated in HLMA and won the Gold Award, which further boosted my enthusiasm to pursue mathematics research. After completing my degree in mathematics, I became interested in teaching and gained an education diploma. From that time on, I was determined to become a mathematics teacher so that I could share the joy of conducting mathematics research with my students.
C: Why do you encourage students to participate in HLMA?
AC: Conventional mathematics competitions have pre-set questions which participants are required to solve within a certain timeframe. In contrast, HLMA is a research-based competition that gives students the opportunity to explore mathematics research comparable to university level. Given the constraints of the mathematics curriculum, students are hard pressed to cover the contents and learn examination strategies, but HLMA allows me to lead students to deal with advanced mathematics problems not covered in normal lessons.
AF: HLMA is a high-level mathematics competition which provides students with a platform to challenge themselves, unleash their potential, and expose them to the world of mathematics research. It is hoped that through HLMA, students will come to appreciate that studying at an advanced level entails the rigor of problem solving and perseverance in the face of difficulties. On another front, when I teach regular lessons, I have to be mindful of the different abilities of students, and spend considerable time helping them on examination preparations. However, when I lead my students to participate in HLMA, I can explore new areas of mathematics with my students and acquire new knowledge. More importantly, not only do my students learn from the interactions and discussions, but I myself also benefit as well.
C: What is the biggest difference between participating in HLMA as a student before and as a leading teacher now?
AC: It feels so familiar to me! But of course, I have greater responsibility as a supervising teacher than as a student. For this reason, I have to take it more seriously and pay more attention. When I was a student, I could always turn to my teacher whenever I encountered problems, and I only had to concentrate on writing the research report. But now as a leading teacher, I must take up a management and leadership role to stimulate students to conceptualize and develop a topic, guide them in solving problems, and assist them in tasks allocation. When they get stuck in a bottleneck, I would encourage them to find solutions and not give up so easily. Moreover, in case there are disagreements among them, I would need to mediate and teach them to listen to as well as accept others.
AF: It feels very special to see my students follow my footsteps! When I was a student, I just needed to complete my research report, but now wearing a teacher’s hat, I felt that I am my students’ trusted partner, the one they would turn to when they have difficulties. I always remind myself to be a role model for my students, to keep them motivated and boost their morale, as I believe that the more support I give them, the farther they may go and the more they can achieve. Even though we did not win the competition this time, I was pleasantly surprised to see my students approached me, just a few days after the awards presentation ceremony, and asked for a further investigation into the question. I realized that the competition has ignited their passion for research, and I felt that my efforts have paid off.
C: STEM education is now more important than ever. What do you think of the importance of mathematics in STEM education?
AC: It is not difficult for us to appreciate the importance of mathematics to other disciplines, such as science, technology, engineering, as well as their applications. Mathematics is a subject that requires logical thinking. Many advanced technologies, say, computer programming, is basically a way of communication with a computer in a logical way; All scientific experiments, upon completion, also require mathematics to carry out data analysis. From the above examples, you can see that mathematics is an essential tool in the fields of information and sciences. HLMA can train students the skillset in logical and analytical thinking, enable them to get a taste of conducting scientific research, and may even lay a good foundation for them to engage in STEM-related industries in the future.
AF: Technology is core to modern life, but technology is inseparable from mathematics. The cryptocurrency system, for instance, is actually based on a series of complicated mathematics problems, and the “mining” process uses computers to solve mathematical problems. Even cyber security systems, which we encounter in our everyday lives, are also linked with mathematics at the back end. As such, a solid foundation in mathematics will benefit your career development in STEM-related industries, and HLMA is a pathway to ignite students’ interest in STEM. Instead of being a competition that only deals with numbers, students have to come up with their own research question, conduct an investigation and prepare a report, a process which is similar to scientific research. The most crucial thing is to manage the mindset of students to appreciate that research cannot be done in one stroke. Only with perseverance and meticulous attitude would they succeed.
C: What do you think is the greatest joy of conducting mathematics research?
AC: That would definitely be the moment when an unsolved problem is solved! It gave me a great sense of achievement.
I remember our HLMA research topic was “A Study of Infectious Diseases Through Mathematical Modelling”. Having gone through the painful experience of the SARS epidemic, we hoped to use mathematical modelling to achieve a better prediction of epidemic development in case another outbreak occurs: when the peak would be reached, and when the outbreak would retreat and fade out. We took references from typical models, but then we got stuck as we had no idea how to modify them. After multiple rounds of trial and error, we added a number of variables, such as the flow of visitors, birth and death rates, and so on, and we finally managed to devise a completely new model that could simulate the actual situation at that time. It was so rewarding to yield a positive result after putting in so much effort to overcome the hardship!
AF: Conducting mathematics research or participating in HLMA gave me the opportunity to explore the mysteries of mathematics. To change the world through research and to make advances for mankind is, I believe, the biggest joy of carrying out mathematics research.
Furthermore, when I joined the HLMA, my teacher’s encouragement gave me the motivation to persevere and complete the competition. I am particularly thankful to my teacher Mr. Kwok Kei Chang. He was very dedicated and conscientious throughout the competition, and I still cherish his companionship and mentorship to this day. I regard him as my role model. Mathematics research is not easy, and from time to time you will experience some setbacks, but you will also grow after you overcome the obstacles. When you look back at those problems, you will realize they are not as hard as you thought, and it is satisfying to know the progress you have made.
C: Some may say mathematics research is a lonely path. What are your views?
AC: My short answer is yes and no. We joined HLMA as a team, and when you were working on your own part, you naturally had to handle them independently. But viewing the whole competition process holistically, my teammates and I engaged in frequent discussions. We reviewed, shared comments, compiled the research report, and made edits on each other’s work. In that sense, I was not alone. As a supervising teacher, I encourage my students to join the competition as a team because the discussions would be more interesting, and they can observe and learn mutually, hence complementing each other’s shortcomings. On team size, I would recommend two students as it is more efficient to reach a consensus in discussions.
AF: Some mathematicians can be in seclusion for decades to solve a problem on their own, but very few people have such passion for mathematics. Maybe this is the norm in mathematics research? But for applied mathematics, I believe a more open approach should be adopted, with more discussions and listening to others’ opinions for better outcomes.
Whether students choose to join the competition individually or as a team depends very much on their character. If a student is strong-minded, with a passion to push the envelope, and is capable of independent thinking, he or she may consider joining individually. But I also encourage students to form teams, so that they can work together and complement each other.