Teaching Mathematics

Following my talk in Madrid in November, I was asked to answer a few questions about the current status of maths teaching based on my experience as a university lecturer. Here are my answers…

How should mathematics be taught in schools?

Through stories. Teaching through story-telling is an incredibly powerful tool and one that is not used enough in mathematics. For example, when teaching trigonometry, rather than just stating the formulae, why not explain WHY they were needed in the first place – by ancient architects trying to construct monuments, by explorers trying to estimate the height of a distant mountain – these are the reasons that mathematics was developed, and I think that teaching it through these stories will help to engage more students with the subject.

Are teachers prepared to teach this subject correctly?

I don’t believe the teachers are at fault – they are told to follow a particular curriculum and due to their heavy workload have no time to develop lessons with engagement at the heart of their design. There are of course ways that we can help teachers, by providing examples of ways to make maths content more interesting and engaging. This can be through story-telling or applications to topics of interest to students such as sport and video games. This is what I try to do with ‘Tom Rocks Maths’, for example see my video teaching Archimedes Principle by answering the question ‘how many ping-pong balls would it take to raise the Titanic from the ocean floor?’.

In your view, how should a math teacher be?

The most important thing is to have passion for the subject. The level of excitement and interest that the teacher demonstrates when presenting a subject will pass on to the students. Just as enthusiasm is infectious, so too is a lack of it. Beyond passion, there is no typical profile of a maths teacher. Anyone can be a mathematician, and it is very important that people don’t feel that they have to conform to a particular stereotype to teach the subject. I have always just been myself, and hopefully as a public figure in mathematics will inspire others to do the same.

Sometimes, this subject becomes more complicated for some students, not so much because of its difficulty, but because of the way in which they have been taught. What should be done with these students?

The trick is to find a way to explain a topic that resonates with a particular group of students. Let me give you an example from my research: the Navier-Stokes Equations (NSEs). For students who have no real interest in mathematics, I would try to get them to engage by explain the $1-million prize that can be won by solving these equations. For students who have more interest in real-world applications such as in Engineering or Biology, I would tell them about how the aerodynamics of a vehicle or the delivery of a drug in the bloodstream rely on an understanding of Fluid Mechanics and the NSEs. If the students are fans of sport, I can explain how the equations are used to explain the movement of a tennis ball through the air, or for testing the perfect formation in road cycling. Finally, for students who are already keen mathematicians, I would explain how the equations work in almost every situation, except for a few extreme cases where they result in ‘singularities’, which as a mathematician are the ones you are most interested in understanding. Once you know the interests of your audience, you can present a topic in a way that will help them to engage with the material.

Can you get to hate math?

It is certainly possible – though of course alien to mathematician such as myself! I think this feeling of ‘hate’ relates back to either the way that you have been taught the subject, or from a lack of understanding. If you did not enjoy your maths lessons at school and harbour ill feelings towards your teacher, then you will begin to develop negative feelings towards the subject. This is not because you dislike the subject, but more because of the way that it was taught to you. Likewise, if you do not understand mathematics then it is very easy to develop a ‘fear’ of the subject, which can quickly turn into hatred due to feelings of inadequacy or stupidity if not addressed. It all comes back to finding a way to approach the subject that fits with the knowledge and experiences that you already have. If you present a problem in an abstract manner of manipulating random numbers to find a given total, then most people will struggle – regardless of their mathematical ability. But the same problem presented in a relatable situation suddenly becomes understandable. Here’s an example:

(a). Using the following numbers make a total of 314: 1, 1, 2, 5, 10, 10, 20, 20, 50, 100, 100, 500.

(b). You go shopping and the total is €3.14. What coins would you use to pay for your items?

They are the same question, but in (a). the problem looks like a maths question, and in (b). it is an everyday situation that people all over the world are used to. Both require the same maths to solve, but even people who ‘hate’ maths could tell you the correct answer to (b). using their own real-life experience.

Women are at a great disadvantage compared to men when entering a STEM career, why do you think this is happening?

First of all, as a man I am certainly not qualified to answer this question, but I will at least try to provide you with my opinion based on personal experience. At high school level I believe that the difference is less severe (eg. see article here) and even at university there is a slightly higher number of females than males studying science-based subjects. BUT, the issue occurs after this. In graduate degree programmes and beyond there is a definite lack of female researchers, and this is amplified even further at more senior level positions. One explanation could be that academic ‘tenure-track’ positions exist for life, and so many of the men that now hold these positions have done so for the past 30-40 years and were employed when we were doing a much worse job of tackling the gender gap. Now that awareness of these issues has increased, and in general we are doing a much better job at addressing them that we were 30 years ago, hopefully we will begin to see more females in leading positions over the coming years, it will just take a little while for the effect to be seen. I also think that in general there are not enough female role models within many subjects (especially maths) that have reached the pinnacle of their field (through no fault of their own), and as such there is a lack of role models for young female researchers. The achievements of female mathematicians such as Maryam Mirzakhani (2014 Fields Medal) and Karen Uhlenbeck (2019 Abel Prize) should be even more celebrated precisely for this reason.

Do you think that enough importance is given to mathematics in the educational world?

In the past perhaps not, but attitudes are certainly changing. With the increased role that technology and algorithms play in our lives, people are beginning to realise that we need to better understand these processes to be able to make informed decisions – and maths is the key to doing this. Employers are certainly aware of the invaluable skillset possessed by a mathematician and as a result more and more students are choosing to study the subject at degree level and beyond to improve their competitiveness in the job market. Ultimately, attitudes are changing for the better, but there is still more that can be done.

In your opinion, what is the best way to teach this subject?

Exactly as I have described in questions 1 and 4. Storytelling is key to making the material as engaging as possible and knowing the interests of your audience allows you to present the subject in a way that will appeal to them most effectively.

What is the current situation of mathematics research in the university?

I think the main issue facing research mathematics is the relatively recent trend of short-term research outcomes. The majority of funding available to mathematicians requires either continuous publication of new results or outcomes that can readily be used in an applied setting.  The issue of continuous publication means that researchers feel the need to publish a new manuscript every few months, which leads to very small advances at each step, and a wealth of time spent writing and formatting an article instead of conducting actual research. In many cases, the work would be much clearer if published as one piece in its entirety after several years of careful work. The drive for short-term research outcomes means that it is now very difficult to study mathematics just for the sake of it – you have to be able to convince your funding body that your work has real-world applications that will be of benefit to society within the next 5-10 years. To show why this is a disaster for maths research, let’s take the example of Einstein and his work on relativity. Now seen as a one of the most fundamental theories of physics, his work had no practical applications until the invention of GPS 60 years later. In today’s short-term outcomes driven market, it is highly unlikely that Einstein’s work would have been funded.

Photo: Residencia de Estudiantes

Tracking Beetles using the Sound of their Wings

The Cocunut Rhinoceros Beetle is an invasive species that if left alone would decimate citrus crops across California. To prevent this from happening, John Allen and his team at the University of Hawai’i have been working to hunt the insects down before they are able to reach the West Coast of the USA. By identifying the frequency of the beetles wing beat, they are able to track them down by listening out for the unique flapping sound of their wings and alert pest control to their whereabouts.

This video is part of a collaboration between FYFD and the Journal of Fluid Mechanics featuring a series of interviews with researchers from the APS DFD 2017 conference.

Sponsored by FYFD, the Journal of Fluid Mechanics, and the UK Fluids Network. Produced by Tom Crawford and Nicole Sharp with assistance from A.J. Fillo.

Numberphile: Pi Million Subscribers

It’s incredible to see a channel dedicated entirely to maths reach this quite frankly ridiculous number of subscribers – congratulations Numberphile!! If you haven’t seen it yet check out the many famous faces, including yours truly at 1:27…

Perfect Numbers and Mersenne Primes

Perfect numbers and Mersenne primes might seem like unrelated branches of math, but work by Euclid and Euler over 2000 years apart showed they are so deeply connected that a one-to-one correspondence exists between the two sets of numbers.

Produced by Tom Rocks Maths intern Kai Laddiman, with assistance from Tom Crawford. Thanks to St John’s College, Oxford for funding the placement.

Numberphile: Where Does River Water Go?

The third video in the fluid dynamics trilogy I made for Numberphile. Rivers contain 80% of pollution which ends up in the ocean, so understanding where the water goes when it leaves the river mouth is of upmost importance in the fight to clean-up our planet.

Watch part 1 on the Navier-Stokes Equations here

Watch part 2 on Reynolds Number here.

Funbers Christmas Special

A very fun Christmas treat for you all as I team up with my good friend Bobby Seagull for the Funbers Xmas Special – expect fun facts, lots of numbers, and more birds than anyone thought possible… Happy Holidays!!

12 Days of Christmas Puzzles

Looking for some festive fun over the holiday season? Why not try your hand at my 12 Christmas puzzles…

Answers to all puzzles at the bottom of the page. 


 

Puzzle 1: If I set a puzzle every day of the advent period (1-25 December) and spend 1 minute on the first puzzle, 2 minutes on the second, 3 minutes on the third, and so on, with the final one being 25 minutes on the 25th puzzle, what is the total amount of time I will spend writing puzzles?

 


 

Puzzle 2: December 6th marked my birthday and to celebrate I travelled to Kiev with 4 friends. If I order a drink on the flight out and then each of my friends orders twice as many as the person before, how many drinks do we order in total?

 


 

Puzzle 3: This morning I built a snowman using three spheres of radius 0.5m, 0.4m and 0.2m. However, the sun has since come out and the snowman is starting to melt at a rate of 0.01 m3 per minute. How long will it take for him to disappear completely?

 


 

Puzzle 4: Suppose a newly-born pair of elves, one male, one female, are living together at the North pole. Elves are able to mate at the age of one month so that at the end of its second month a female elf can produce another pair of offspring. Suppose that the elves never die, and that the female always produces one new pair (one male, one female) every month from the start of the third month on. After one year, how many pairs of elves will there be?

 


 

Puzzle 5: On Christmas day I have 11 people coming to dinner and so I’m working on the seating plan ahead of time. For a round table with exactly 12 chairs, how many different seating plans are possible?

 


 

Puzzle 6: My front yard is covered in snow and I need to clear a path connecting my front door to the pavement and then back to the garage. If each square in the diagram is 1m x 1m what is the shortest possible path?

frontyard


 

Puzzle 7: The first night of Chanukah is December 22nd when the first candle is lit. If it burns at a rate of 0.05cm per hour, how tall does the candle need to be to last the required 8 days?

 


 

Puzzle 8: If you have a square chimney which is 0.7m across, assuming Santa has a round belly what is the maximum waist size that can fit down the chimney?

 


 

Puzzle 9: On Christmas Eve Santa needs to visit each country around the world in 24 hours. Assuming time stands still whilst he is travelling, how long can he spend in each country?

 


 

Puzzle 10: I got carried away with buying presents this year and now have more than can fit into my stocking. If the stocking has a maximum capacity of 150, and my presents have the following sizes: 16, 27, 37, 65, 52, 42, 95, 59; what is the closest I can get to filling the stocking completely?

(NB: I am not looking for the highest number of presents that will fit, but the largest total that is less than or equal to 150).

 


 

Puzzle 11: Santa has 8 reindeer, and each one can pull a weight of 80kg. If Santa weights 90kg, his sleigh 180kg, and each present weighs at least 3kg, what is the maximum number of presents that can be carried in a single trip?

 


 

Puzzle 12: To mark the end of the 12 days of Christmas each student at the University of Oxford has kindly decided to donate some money to a charity of their choice. If the first person donates £12 and everyone after donates exactly half the amount of the person before them (rounding down to the nearest penny), how much will be donated in total?

 


 

Answers

 

Puzzle 1: 1 + 2 + 3 + … + 25 = 325. There is a faster way to do this which was first discovered by the mathematician Gauss when he was still at school. If you pair each of the numbers in your sum, eg. 0 + 25, 1 + 24, 2 + 23, etc. up to 12 + 13, then you have 13 pairs which each total 25 and so the overall total is 25*13 = 325. The same method works when adding up the first n numbers, with the total always being n(n+1)/2.

 


 

Puzzle 2: 1+2+4+8+16 = 31.

 


 

Puzzle 3: Volume of a sphere = (4/3)*pi*radius3 and so the total volume of snow = 0.52 + 0.27 + 0.03 = 0.82 m3. Melting at a rate of 0.01 m3 per minute means the snowman will be gone after only 82 minutes!

 


 

Puzzle 4: This problem is actually a very famous sequence in disguise…

The first new pair is born at the start of the third month giving 2 pairs after three months. The question tells us that we have to wait one whole month before the new offspring can mate and so only the original pair can give birth during the fourth month which leaves a total of 3 pairs after four months. For the fifth month, both the original pair, and the first-born pair can now produce offspring and so we get two more pairs giving a total of 5 after five months. In month six, the second-born pair can now also produce offspring and so in total we have three offspring-producing pairs, giving 8 pairs after 6 months.

At this point, you may have spotted that the numbers follow the Fibonacci sequence, which is created by adding the previous two numbers together to get the next one along. The first twelve numbers in the sequence are below, which gives an answer of 144 – no wonder Santa is able to make so many toys!

Fibonacci sequence: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, …

 


 

Puzzle 5: I have 12 choices of where to place the first person, 11 for the second, 10 for the third and so on, which gives 12*11*10*9*8*7*6*5*4*3*2*1 = 12! (read as 12 factorial) in total. BUT for any given seating plan we can rotate around the table one place to get the same order, which means we have in fact over counted by a factor of 12. Therefore, the total number is 11! = 39,916,800.

 


 

Puzzle 6: Reflect the yard in the pavement and draw a straight line connecting the front door to the edge of the garage closest to the front door (blue). Then add the same line from the ‘reflected’ front door at the top back down to the garage at the bottom (orange). The final shortest path is found by combining both paths for a valid one in the original diagram.

Screenshot 2020-01-14 at 13.04.44

The length is found using Pythagoras’ Theorem. From the door to the pavement we have length

(12 + 22)1/2 = (5)1/2

and from the pavement to the garage the length is

((1.5)2 + 32)1/2 = (11.25)1/2

giving a total length of 2.23 + 3.35 = 5.58m.

 


 

Puzzle 7: 8 days = 8*24 hours = 192 hours. 192*0.05 = 9.6cm.

 


 

Puzzle 8: Chimney diameter = 0.7m so the maximum circumference (or waist size) that will fit is 0.7*pi = 2.2m or 88 inches!

 


 

Puzzle 9: Using the UN list of 193 countries, Santa has 24 * 60 = 1440 minutes total, which means spending only 7.5 minutes in each country!

 


 

Puzzle 10: 150 exactly with 16 + 27 + 42 + 65 = 150.

 


 

Puzzle 11: We have 8 reindeer each with a capacity of 80kg giving a total of 640kg that can be carried. Subtracting the 90kg for Santa and 180kg for the sleigh leaves 370kg available. Dividing this by 3 gives 123.33 so a maximum of 123 presents can be carried at once.

 


 

Puzzle 12: 12 + 6 + 3 + 1.5 + 0.75 + 0.37 + 0.18 + 0.09 + 0.04 + 0.02 + 0.01 + 0 + 0 + 0 + …

The donations stop after the 11th person giving a total of £23.87. Even if we had allowed donations of part of a penny the total would never quite reach £24.00. This is an example of an infinite sum (or Geometric Series) where the total is always two times the first number.

How does Sea Ice affect Climate Change?

There is no doubt that sea ice in the polar regions is melting, but what is the exact role that this plays in the global climate system? To understand climate change we need to understand mixing in the ocean, which is exactly what Andrew Wells at the University of Oxford comes is trying to do by studying a model for sea ice growth in the Arctic.

This video is part of a collaboration between FYFD and the Journal of Fluid Mechanics featuring a series of interviews with researchers from the APS DFD 2017 conference.

Sponsored by FYFD, the Journal of Fluid Mechanics, and the UK Fluids Network. Produced by Tom Crawford and Nicole Sharp with assistance from A.J. Fillo.

Fire and Ice: Burning Oil in the Polar Regions

One of the clean-up methods used following an oil spill is to burn the fuel on the surface of the ocean. This generally works well, except in polar regions where the heat from the fire rapidly accelerates the melting of ice. Hamed Farahani at Worcester Polytechnic Institute is studying this phenomenon using laboratory experiments with the goal of improving the efficiency of combustion as a control for ocean pollution.

This video is part of a collaboration between FYFD and the Journal of Fluid Mechanics featuring a series of interviews with researchers from the APS DFD 2017 conference.

Sponsored by FYFD, the Journal of Fluid Mechanics, and the UK Fluids Network. Produced by Tom Crawford and Nicole Sharp with assistance from A.J. Fillo.

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