Episode 10 of Tom Rocks Maths on Oxide Radio sees the conclusion of the million-dollar Millennium Problem series with the Hodge Conjecture, a mischievously difficult number puzzle, and the answer to the question on everyone’s lips: how many people have died watching the video of Justin Bieber’s Despacito? Plus, the usual great music from the Prodigy, the Hives and Weezer.

New guidance, released by Pearson, says: If we want to tackle maths anxiety in Britain, we have to change the negative perceptions and experiences that so many learners have when it comes to maths. In this blog, Dr Tom Crawford, maths tutor at the University of Oxford, shares his take on the out-of-the-box approaches to help engage young people with the subject, spark curiosity and inspire life-long interest in maths.

Maths is boring, serious and irrelevant to everyday life – at least according to the results of my survey amongst friends, students and colleagues working in education. This isn’t necessarily something new, but it does highlight one of the current issues facing maths education: how do we improve its image amongst society in general?

With ‘Tom Rocks Maths’ my approach is simple: improve the image of maths by combatting each of the three issues identified above, and do it as creatively as possible…

Tackling “Maths is boring”

The misconception that maths is a boring subject often develops from maths lessons at school. Due to the extensive curriculum, teachers do not have the time to explore topics in detail, and in many cases, resort to providing a list of equations or formulae that need to be memorised for an exam.

My attempted solution is to do the hard work for them by creating curiosity-driven videos that explain mathematical concepts in exciting and original ways. Take the example of Archimedes Principle – a concept that explains why some objects are able to float whilst others sink – a key part of the secondary school curriculum. It’s perhaps not the most engaging topic for teenagers with no interest in weight regulations for maritime vehicles. But, if instead the topic were presented as part of a video answering the question ‘how many ping-pong balls would it take to raise the Titanic from the ocean floor?’ then maybe we can grab their attention.

Generating curiosity-driven questions such as these is not always easy, but the core concept is to present the topic as part of the answer to an interesting question that your audience simply has to know the answer to.

When teaching my second-year undergraduate students about Stokes’ Law for the terminal velocity of an object falling through a fluid, we discuss the question ‘how long would it take for Usain Bolt to sink to the bottom of the ocean?’ – something I think almost everyone wants to know the answer to! (Don’t worry you can watch the video to find out).

Tackling “Maths is irrelevant to everyday life”

Of all of the issues facing maths in society at the moment, this is perhaps the one that annoys me the most. The majority of people that I speak to who don’t like maths will tell me that it’s the ‘language of the universe’ and can be used to describe pretty much anything, but yet they almost always go on to say how they stopped trying to engage with it because it simply doesn’t apply to them. This is what we mathematicians call a contradiction.

To try to tackle this issue, I go out of my way to present as large a range of topics as possible from a mathematical viewpoint. This has seen me discuss the maths of dinosaurs, the maths of Pokémon and the maths of sport to name but a few. Throughout 2018, my weekly ‘Funbers’ series with BBC radio examined the ‘fun facts about numbers that you didn’t realise you’ve secretly always wanted to know’, where each week a new number would be discussed alongside an assortment of relevant facts from history, religion and popular culture. When working with the BBC, I was very insistent that the programmes were introduced as a ‘maths series’ to help listeners to make the connection between maths and everyday life.

Tackling “Maths is too serious”

At first this surprised me. I’d never personally thought of my subject as ‘serious’ and speaking to my friends and colleagues, they seemed equally perplexed. But then it hit me. Looking at maths and mathematicians from the outside, where you cannot understand the intricate details and beautiful patterns, calling the subject ‘serious’ is a very valid response. There are endless rules and regulations that must be followed for the work to make sense, and most people working in the field can come across as antisocial or introverted to an outsider, which is where I come in.

To try to show that maths isn’t as serious as many people believe, and just to have some plain old fun, I created my persona as the ‘Naked Mathematician’. This began with the ‘Equations Stripped’ video series on YouTube, where I strip-back some of the most important equations in maths layer by layer, whilst also removing an item of my clothing at each step until I remain in just my underwear. As well as providing an element of humour to the videos (as no mention is made of the increasing lack of clothing), the idea is that by doing maths in my underwear it shows that it does not have to be taken as seriously as many people believe.

I have also seen an added benefit of this approach in attracting a new audience that otherwise may not have had any interest in learning maths – from my perspective I really don’t care why people are engaging with the subject, so long as they have a good experience which they will now associate with mathematics.

Whilst I am aware that my approach to tackling the issues faced by mathematics in society may not be to everyone’s tastes, our current methods of trying to engage people with maths are not working, so isn’t it about time we tried thinking outside of the box?

The original article published by Pearson is available here.

Tom Rocks Maths launches into Hilary Term on Oxide Radio – Oxford University’s student radio station – with the continuation of the million-dollar Millennium Problems series, an explanation of how Tom’s PhD research can be used to help clean-up our oceans, and conspiracy theories aplenty with Funbers 11. Plus, music from Kings of Leon, Biffy Clyro and new Found Glory. This is maths, but not as you know it…

Dr Tom Crawford joined the Hall in October 2018 as a Stipendiary Lecturer in Mathematics, but he is far from your usual mathematician…

Tom’s research investigates where river water goes when it enters the ocean. A simple question, you might first think, but the complexity of the interaction between the lighter freshwater and the heavier saltwater, mixed together by the tides and wind, and pushed ‘right’ along the coast due to the Earth’s rotation, is anything but. The motivation for understanding this process comes from recent attempts to clean-up our oceans. Rivers are the main source of pollution in the ocean, and therefore by understanding where freshwater ends up in the ocean, we can identify the area’s most susceptible to pollution and mitigate for its effects accordingly.

To better understand this process, Tom conducts experiments in the lab and has conducted fieldwork expeditions to places as far-flung as Antarctica. What the southern-most continent lacks in rivers, it makes up for in meltwater from its plethora of ice sheets. The ultimate process is the same – lighter freshwater being discharged into a heavier saltwater ocean – and as the most remote location on Earth the influence of humans is at its least.

If you thought that a mathematician performing experiments and taking part in fieldwork expeditions was unusual, then you haven’t seen anything yet. Tom is also very active in outreach and public engagement as the author of the award-winning website tomrocksmaths.com which looks to entertain, excite and educate about all thing’s maths. The key approach to Tom’s work is to make entertaining content that people want to engage with, without necessarily having an active interest in maths. Questions such as ‘how many ping-pong balls would it take to raise the Titanic from the ocean floor?’ and ‘what is the blast radius of an atomic bomb?’ peak your attention and curiosity meaning you have no choice but to click to find out the answer!

Tom is also the creator of the ‘Funbers’ series which was broadcast on BBC Radio throughout 2018 telling you the ‘fun facts you didn’t realise you’ve secretly always wanted to know’ about a different number every week. From the beauty of the ‘Golden Ratio’ to the world’s unluckiest number (is it really 13?) via the murderous tale of ‘Pythagoras’ Constant’, Funbers is a source of endless entertainment for all ages and mathematical abilities alike.

And now for the big finale. If you are familiar with Tom’s work, you may know where we are heading with this, but if not, strap yourself in for the big reveal. Dr Tom Crawford is the man behind the ‘Naked Mathematician’ (yes you did read that correctly). To try to show that maths isn’t as serious as many people believe, to try to engage a new audience with the subject, and just to have fun, Tom regularly gives maths talks in his underwear! His ‘Equations Stripped’ series on YouTube has reached 250,000 views – that’s a quarter of a million people that have engaged with maths that may otherwise have never done so. His recent tour of UK universities saw several thousand students come to a maths lecture of their own accord to learn about fluid dynamics. It may not be to everyone’s tastes, but our current methods of trying to engage people with maths are failing, so why not try something new? This is maths, but not as you know it.

Another fantastic guest joins me in the latest episode of Tom Rocks Maths on Oxide Radio as my student Bonnor explains the Bridges of Koenigsberg and their link to Topology and Graph Theory. Plus, news from the Royal Society, a prime puzzle, and a numbers quiz featuring everything from the Simpsons and owls, to counting to one billion using only 10% of our brains. All interspersed with amazing music from Paramore, Linkin Park and Bring me the Horizon. This is maths, but not as you know it…

More great music and great maths from Tom Rocks Maths on Oxide Radio – Oxford University’s student radio station. Featuring special guest Yuxiao who explains the Monty Hall problem, tackles the infamous numbers quiz, and sets us not one, but THREE problems in a bumper edition of the weekly puzzle. Plus, music from ACDC, Gym Class Heroes and The Offspring. This is maths, but not as you know it…

Another fun-filled hour of your favourite two things – maths and rock music – courtesy of Tom Rocks Maths on Oxide Radio. This week I’m joined by two of my students from Teddy Hall, Fran and Tom, who will be explaining their favourite mathematical topics, taking part in a bumper numbers quiz, and sharing some of their music tastes. Plus, the usual dose of Funbers, and excellent music from Panic at the Disco, Sum 41 and Muse.

With thanks to Alice Taylor for production assistance.

Meet Professor Seifert – a Maths tutor at St John’s College and a researcher at the University of Oxford. Here, he explains his love of Mathematics and how his research can be applied to almost anything – from waves of light to the sound of a violin string. Produced for the St John’s College Inspire Programme.