Jan Thomas: Farewell to AMSI Executive Officer

Jan has made an extraordinary contribution to mathematical sciences in Australia.

Jan has made an extraordinary contribution to mathematical sciences in Australia. She is a past president of the Australian Mathematical Sciences Council, and has been involved with mathematics curriculum and policy development with the Department of Education. Jan was a senior lecturer in mathematics education at Victoria University before she became involved with the establishment and function of AMSI. We wish her all the very best for her retirement.

You’ve been with AMSI since its inception. How did it all begin?
Back in 2000, I was given the opportunity to travel overseas, which included a trip to the University of Toronto where I was able to visit the Fields Institute for a day. It occurred to me that we’d got to a stage in Australia where we really needed an institute that was based around research, and the Fields model of integrating industry, education and research was beginning to look more and more sensible in terms of a model for Australia.

When I returned from overseas I wrote a paper called “Mathematical Sciences in Australia – looking for a future” in which I suggested that we pursue something like the Fields Institute.

In 2001, I was attending a mathematics conference in Canberra when Professor Lynn Batten, who was the Head of Mathematics at Deakin at the time, mentioned to Professor Tony Guttmann and me that there was a Science and Technology Innovation grant being offered by the Victorian Government, and that we could try to set up an institute using that. So we put together a proposal, arguing that this new institute would address the Victorian Government’s priority areas by providing mathematical infrastructure.

At this stage we were fairly unambitious, as we thought that only Victorian universities would come on board, since that’s where the institute would be located. But then we got lucky. As part of my job with the Australian Mathematical Society, I had contact with the all the heads of the university mathematics departments, so I sent them information about what we were doing. Professor Garth Gaudry, who was the Head of Mathematics at the University of New South Wales, immediately said that UNSW would be a full member. Then there was a ripple effect. We got the University of Sydney and ANU on board, and other universities joined as associate members, so it meant that we were going to have a national institute right from the beginning.

Now this was about the time that I was thinking about retiring, and I had been given an honorary position at the University of Melbourne. This meant that I was able to work with Prof. Guttman, the President of the Australian Mathematical Society at the time, to write a business plan for this grant. I don’t know how we did it but we managed to pull it off. We had to go to “how to write a business plan” school, and it was a big learning curve for both of us, but we managed to pull it off. So that’s how we ended up with AMSI.

What were you doing before you got involved with AMSI?
I’m a chemistry graduate. I studied in Adelaide, but it was when I moved to Melbourne that I developed an interest in education. La Trobe University offered a fabulous part-time Dip-Ed program, which suited me really well, and I thought I was going to be a chemistry teacher. But when I arrived at my first school I immediately realised that the standard of mathematics in Year 7 was so appalling that none of the kids would ever become chemists. Many of the students came from non-English speaking backgrounds, and teaching chemistry to the small number of students who followed it through to year 12 was going to be very challenging. So I ended up less interested in teaching chemistry and more interested in mathematics education.

I took some of my students in to work with John Munro here at the University of Melbourne. He kept stressing how important it was for children to talk about what they were doing in mathematics, but of course I was dealing with almost exclusively non-English speaking children. This prompted me to take a course in teaching English as a second language. I didn’t do this because I wanted to teach ESL, I did it because I wanted to know how we could do a better job teaching mathematics to students from non-English speaking backgrounds.

I then got involved with a marvelous unit called Child Migrant Education Services. This was a group of people who worked in schools to addess language issues in all subjects at the school’s request. This was a wonderful job, and we had such a talented group of people from a wide range of backgrounds.

One of the issues we had to face was an influx of students from Cambodia after the Vietnam War. Some of the students were 15-16 years old and had never been to school, so it was a whole new ball game for the ESL teachers. The students didn’t have even a basic understanding of how their own language worked, which made learning English particularly challenging for them.

None of these support services exists anymore, and I think a lot of people don’t realise what we’ve lost in terms of providing support for ESL students.

What are your plans for the coming year?
I’ve got a few projects that I’d like to do over the next few months. One is to create a small booklet for parents about what they can do to ensure their kids get a decent mathematics education, and why they should be making a fuss about it. I’d also like to document the history of AMSI, and discuss some of the problems in mathematics education in Australia that have developed over the past two decades.

And what do you do when you’re not working?
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I love the birds in Royal Park, and I’ve been involved with orienteering for many years as well. We even managed to recruit one of our AMSI staff through an orienteering event a few years ago.

Any final remarks?
I would like to say how much I have enjoyed working with all three directors we’ve had at AMSI, and Tony Guttmann as the interim Director. They have all done a lot of great things in mathematical sciences and for AMSI. I really appreciate the great people I’ve been able to work with – the directors, and all the other wonderful people who are or have been on the staff.