University of Auckland: The ‘South Auckland Mathematics Challenge’ showcasing Māori and Pacific student excellence


Josephina Tamatoa is a Professional Teaching Fellow in the School of Mathematics and a recovering high school teacher, she is also the brainchild behind the ‘South Auckland Mathematics Challenge’ (SAMC). SAMC is a competition for South and West Auckland schools that have high numbers of Māori and Pacific students, to help them prepare for the regional Mathex competition. SAMC was created to fill a gap that Josephina and university alumni and Assistant Principal of Māngere College, Katalina Ma, found when they were discussing available initiatives for students who were excelling in mathematics.

“My friend Katalina Ma and I came up with the idea of SAMC over dinner while discussing how we knew of initiatives in place that try and raise the level of mathematics of low ability students to the norm but there was nothing for students who are at the other end of the scale and are excelling in this curriculum area. The statistics of South Auckland teams who competed at Mathex have historically been low. Our experiences were that the lack of exposure to competitive math was behind this result, so we thought, why not give students multiple opportunities to get better at it?”.

I got told by my Year 13 Statistics teacher that ‘you brown girl(s) won’t amount to much.
Josephina Tamatoa
Waipapa Taumata Rau
Josephina and Katalina both had similar experiences of excelling at mathematics in high school but facing racism for being gifted mathematicians.

“Katalina went to enter an accelerated math class at her high school and the teacher told her she was in the wrong class because of how she looked. I got told by my Year 13 Statistics teacher that ‘you brown girl(s) won’t amount to much’. Our students are sponges and believe what they get told by their teachers and we want students to know that they can be successful in math because we have been successful in math. If we can be successful in our academic journey, we feel that it is only right that we create opportunities for others to create their own success story” explains Josephina.

For students, relationships and representation matters. Relationships formed over their enjoyment and success in class extends to not only within their school but also to their wider community. By forming friendships with other students, once they all start their tertiary journey, the hope is that the transition won’t be as isolating because they’ve forged friendships through their love of mathematics.

One area identified for improvement within the university is the success of Pacific students. By giving high school students the opportunity to be exposed to the university through this event and also to the Pacific Academy, the university is seen as a viable option for them post high school. Josephina credits having a strong team and support through Pacific networks as part of the reason SAMC has been so successful.

For me, I feel that math and I are the same, although we sound and look scary once you get to know us, you will love us
Josephina Tamatoa
Waipapa Taumata Rau
“As mentioned SAMC was based on Mathex, so we weren’t looking to recreate the wheel but instead make something that already exists accessible to our Pasifika community so they may know success on a larger scale. We won a recent Vice Chancellor’s recognition award for our work with SAMC and Pacific Academy but we are well supported by Steven Galbraith, the former Pro-Vice Chancellor Pacific Toeolesulusulu Professor Damon Salesa, current Pro-Vice Chancellor Pacific Associate Professor Jemaima Tiatia and the Head of Te Tai Tonga Rennie Atfield-Douglas. A special mention to the Kalman Trust who gave us funding so that we could expand our initial mathematics challenge from south Auckland to include west Auckland (as of 2021) and also run an intermediate competition as of 2022. SzeLooi Chin, Tristan Ah-Sui, Margaret Kiely and Amber Fotu have all played integral roles in SAMC success”.
The ‘trends in international mathematics and science study’ (TIMSS) scores for Aotearoa paint a bleak picture. This initiative gives students opportunity and fosters belief in their potential as mathematicians. The success of SAMC and the follow up success of Māori and Pacific students in Mathex regionally is a prime example of what happens when you instill confidence in communities. Josephina has a deep belief in ensuring students are exposed to math early and often.

“For me, I feel that math and I are the same, although we sound and look scary once you get to know us, you will love us”.

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