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Teaching maths in a fun and practical way

Date Released: Tue, 27 August 2013 12:59 +0200

With a mere seven years of teaching experience, it is certainly remarkable that Dr Lizanne Raubenheimer has received the Vice-Chancellor’s Teaching Award so early in her career.

But as soon as she commenced her lecture to mark the occasion recently, it was clear that her infectious enthusiasm and no-holds-barred passion for her subject is integral to why she is so loved and respected as a lecturer in Mathematical Statistics.

“Daddy I want a new car: the financing behind the scenes” placed the audience in a rare position, to feel as though they are in a Theory of Finance (ToF) class and learn how to work out an everyday problem: how to work out the financing of a new car.

“I decided, let me show you, the audience, what the students experience in my lectures – instead of telling you, I’m going to show you,” she said.

She posed a financial statistics problem: using the example of a young student asking her dad to lend her money to buy a hatchback for R141 000. Looking at the (rather ambitious) budget of being able to pay Dad R3000 per month, Dr Raubenheimer adeptly explained to the audience how to work out the annuity and interest compounded monthly by using a timeline.

To conclude she quipped, “Don’t let Dad get hold of your ToF model as then you will not be able to fool him, and you have to pay interest!”

Forthright and to the point, she says, “You have to have a love for your subject. You can’t expect the students to enjoy it if you don’t love it. If you don’t, I believe that you have quite a cheek and will damage students’ lives by being selfish.”

One of her biggest challenges is dealing with a misperception that is started in high school, the “I can’t do maths stigma” which is then transferred to “I can’t do stats.’” Dealing with this head-on, she says, “If you can tell me that 1+1=2 then of course you can pass my subject!”

Another approach is making lectures fun, even at times running up and down the lecture theatre with the mike; “making it a debate, instead of providing all the answers”. She says she tries to show them how rewarding it is to be academic.

“Because I studied actuarial science, the students often ask me,  are you crazy? Why are you here teaching us, rather than working in an actuarial company? I just answer that a high salary is not half as rewarding as seeing you every day and experiencing those light bulb moments as they happen.”

Another more far-reaching challenge is the continuous shortage of statisticians in the workplace, industry and academic institutions. She pointed out that there are only five full professors under 65 years old working in the field at present – with one of them [Prof Sarah Radloff] being at Rhodes.

“This puts more pressure on us as our society has entered into an age of information where people need to be statistically literate, not only in the workplace but in their everyday day lives.” To this end, she says she can start in her classroom; by making a difference in the lives of the students she teaches every day.

But no one says it better that the students themselves. As one wrote, “I have never come across anyone who is so good with people. She teaches in a way that makes it difficult to forget. She turned me into a person who enjoys studying.”

“In my view and opinion Dr Raubenheimer is the best of my lecturers – I give her a gold medal.”

Dr Raubenheimer was appointed in January 2006 as a tutor and in July 2006 as a junior lecturer in the Department of Mathematical Statistics and Actuarial Science at the University of the Free State, before joining the Rhodes Statistics department in 2008.

In the fiveyears she has been teaching at Rhodes, she has lectured a total of 3245 students. As she wrote in her portfolio, she focuses on developing each student into a graduate, helping them realise their full potential in the subject, which relies on building a relationship with each student, even in large first year classes.

By Anna-Karien Otto

Photo by Stephen Penney

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