Political correctness at a time of change.
A math project at Chalmers School of Technology in Göteborg, Sweden is changing attitudes among ‘new Swedes’
Imagine a project that will make people change their perception of their own future, that is nondiscriminatory and can lead to better grades in school. Farid Nolen imagined that as he wondered about the lack of diversity at Chalmers School of Technology, why some ethnic and social groups are underrepresented. That’s what gave him an idea which became Intize, an initiative he began in part because “There’s no better way to freedom from prejudice.”
September 2005. Farid Nolen was mulling over why the student body at Chalmers was so lacking in diversity. A pilot project was proposed. Farid began offering free math classes in the evenings to high school students in Angered. Twelve students signed up. The project was set in motion.
September 2007. Over 300 people are involved in the non-profit organization, which now has a staff of 12. Intize covers all stages, from high school up to trade and industry, with many Swedish businesses involved as well. Relaxed meeting places have been created where business representatives and students can meet to play soccer or basketball, all in an effort to broaden recruitment. It has had a domino effect. The Norwegian government made a study visit, and invested 10 million NOK (1,869,000 USD) in two Norwegian projects.
“It’s about changing perspective. Math isn’t about right and wrong. In school the focus tends to be on results, but it’s not like that. Math is not a spectator sport. To become good at math isn’t an end in itself, it’s more about improving one’s capacity for logic and creating better conditions. We offer the students personal support; we help make the students visible. If they don’t show up, then we’ll call to see how they’re doing. It means more than you’d think,” Farid says.
But why don’t the schools provide that same support, as this is hardly a new problem?
“I don’t want to blame anybody. I think the problem is that we aren’t united in our effort. There are many problems in society that aren’t the schools’ [problems] to solve. We need to see the overall picture and we have to have a long-term perspective from schools, as well as from politicians and, especially, from businesses. And there definitely is a will - it’s difficult not to try to help when there are problems of this magnitude.”
But the project is so much more than help with homework. According to Farid, it’s an excellent way to reduce prejudice.
“We’re dealing with people of different nationalities, who meet and mingle several times a week and benefit from it. One should never underestimate the importance of personal growth. The students are hungry for education, they give of their free time to become better,” Farid says.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon and Salman Eskandari, a mentor, is about to meet his three students Yara, Camilla, and Dania. There’s a math exam tomorrow, so the evening promises to be intense.
“There’s a whole different atmosphere here. I’m not made to feel stupid, and I can ask all kinds of questions. The emphasis is on learning,” Yara Ali explains.
They’re seated in the library and Salman is walking around, helping them, explaining, and laughing. A personal connection is made, and there’s no need to wait if one’s stuck with a particular problem.
“My confidence is so much better. I used to feel stupid. Now I feel smart,” says Camilla Kanz.
Intize has also created positive side effects: As the students’ sense of self changes, so does their view of their own future.
“I used to be focused on just getting through high school,” Yara says. “Now I’m thinking about how to continue on afterwards. I’m drawing up my own future.”
The students also have a different view of college- and university life.
“I thought this place was for geniuses only, but that was before I visited here. Now I know this place like my own pocket,” says Dania Ghanoum.
“F.. k Chalmers!” says Namam Faraj before she takes a seat in the classroom.
It’s spring of 2005, and Farid is about to present his ideas about the new project for a class of students at Angered High School when Namam interrupts him. Not a good beginning.
“We’ll offer you a free math tutor for the rest of your time in high school.”
The project was on its way as 12 students signed up. Namam was one of them. The students went to Chalmers once a week to receive help with their math work. Two weeks later, Namam and Farid take a tour of Chalmers.
“Chalmers… that’s respect, man!” says Namam.
Namam Faraj was one of the first students in the mentor group. She has since graduated and her view on Swedes and the world of high school has changed.
“This is real integration,” she says. “I don’t have the same prejudices against Swedes as I used to. I used to think all students at Chalmers were nerds who just sat with their books all day long. But that’s not so, they’re cool. This has made life so much easier, let me tell you,” she says with a smile.
This positive development manifests itself on several levels: The students are aided by a broadening of their perspectives and they develop their logical thinking. The college students model behavior that lead the high school students to practical choices rather than presumptions. And, the engineer students themselves, who work as mentors, get some practical experience in addition to their theoretical studies. Businesses get access to a wider recruitment where all society’s resources can be utilized.
“Imagine what will happen when there’s no more outsiders, then what will happen to our society? Then we can talk about changes at a grass-roots level. Change cannot come from above, no Minister of Integration and Gender Equality can change the situation of an individual, it’s up to the individual himself,” says Farid with inspiration.
Why aren’t there more projects like this around? That’s a question that invariably comes to mind. There’s ambition enough, but Farid wants to proceed with care.
“Whenever we extend the project, it gets tricky to keep up the good quality. But of course we’re aiming high; it’s possible to go global with a project like this. We’ll pass on unexpected chances for success,” he says.
And why stop at math? One can easily adapt the project to any school subject. Perhaps, in the long run, it will lead to a new way of pedagogy.
“What’s strange is that it hasn’t been done before – yet the model is so simple! Students meet in smaller groups with their mentors from university. And now even some of the high school students are mentors to younger students. The only thing we do is make sure they’ve got somewhere to meet. At this point, the project pretty much runs itself,” says Farid.
Having new perspectives is vital. Math is, as stated earlier, not a spectator sport. What’s more important is to stimulate the learning process.
“One can train logical thinking. Many students believe you’ve got to have some kind of gift, but we support them and give them new ways of looking at their talents.
Logical thinking is a prerequisite for many other disciplines. Once they feel that they can really learn to understand, there’s no limit to their enthusiasm and commitment. Some kids come here four times in a row right before an exam,” says Farid.
He concludes rather poetically:
“The project is like a tree. It starts as a seed but needs the right conditions in order to make it. Only then can it grow and flourish.”
by Emil Sergel
Intize is a non-profit organization, aimed at furthering the knowledge of and interest for math.
There are 12 employees.
The mentoring groups consist of 3 to 5 people.
The project currently involves around 220 students and 80 mentors.
For more information: www.intize.se
Integration in Sweden
In 2006, 78,000 people immigrated to Sweden; 50% of them were non-Europeans. Gothenburg is one of Sweden’s most segregated cities, a problem which also creates a class society. Many well-educated immigrants cannot utilize their foreign education in Sweden and are forced to work low-paying jobs. In order to take advantage of all people in society, a broader recruitment must be developed. However, The Sweden Democrats, a nationalistic political party highly critical of immigrants, simultaneously gets more votes. Instead of applying assimilation, the Sweden Democrats want to counteract integration.