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

El Mundo Interview

During my recent trip to Madrid to speak at the Residencia de Estudiantes, I was interviewed by national newspaper ‘El Mundo’ about my talk on the ‘Maths of Sport’ and my mission to popularise maths. The original interview can be found here.

Known as Tom Rocks Maths, the Oxford University scientist transforms boring formulas into fascinating models that he applies to sport to improve records and reduce errors.

MAR DE MIGUEL | Madrid

Football World Cup, 2018. 1-1 on the scoreboard. Spain plays its pass to the quarterfinals in the penalty round against Russia. Koke has failed one. Cheryshev is ready to throw. He scores. It’s up to Aspas. Expectation. Whistle. Launch and … Akinfeev stops it. We miss the game.

Could it have been avoided? The answer is Tom Crawford, l’ enfant terrible of numbers, a punkrocker in the court of mathematicians at the University of Oxford. And he explains it with a worn shirt, leather jacket, curled hair, piercing and tattoos. Because Crawford is not a common scientist. He is Tom Rocks Maths, an alternative researcher and communicator who transforms boring formulas into fascinating models that he applies to sports science, his second passion as a marathoner and a follower of Manchester United.

But, since all science is not exact, nor is Crawford a fortune teller, his predictions are based on data, taking into account all possible variables and, above all, on the highest probability of hitting. It is about getting ahead of the facts, of having all the necessary information to reduce errors and improve the records.

The mathematics of sport consist of “building models using data from the past to predict the future. When you don’t have them, you have to go to the field, contact the athletes and gather new information, ”explains Crawford in an interview with EL MUNDO after the talk he gave Tuesday in Madrid during the cycle of conferences ‘Mathematics in the Residence’, organized by ICMAT, the Student Residence and the Deputy Vice Presidency of Scientific Culture of the CSIC.

TomCrawford
Madrid, 12 de noviembre de 2019. El matemático Tom Crawford posa en la Residencia de Estudiantes antes de una conferencia. Foto: Antonio Heredia

Win or lose penalties

The countries that best know how to throw penalties are Uruguay, Germany, Argentina and Brazil. Spain is not good, not bad. We are 50% among this list of experts and 50% of the worst, Mexico. We share media with France and Ireland. But how a team is better than another is not a matter of tradition or genetics, but numbers.

The first thing is to know how the players have responded before to the penalties, their statistics of failures and successes. According to Crawford, in the case of the 2018 World Cup, while Iniesta had four hits of five shots, Koke had zero of one and Aspas 16 of 17. The great surprise could have been given by Thiago, a substitute with a full in hits, four of four.

There is also a way to measure their stress responses with glasses that observe the movements of the eye. Footballers who are not immuted by pressure keep their eyes fixed and the most distracted move them. Knowing this in advance could decide the choice of a coach to choose the most focused players on those decisive penalties of a World Cup. “Football clubs now have entire teams of mathematicians and scientists who analyze all this data,” says Crawford.

But math doesn’t end there. In a goal you can make as many measures as your imagination, as Archimedes, to find the radius that indicates the exact area where you should place the ball without being stopped by the goalkeeper. It is called an insurmountable area and it depends, among other things, on the distance the goalkeeper moves in the shortest possible time from his position in the center. It looks like this: r2-2r(a+b+R)+a2+b2-R2. “These calculations are going to help you but they don’t guarantee that the penalty is perfect. In fact, the goalkeeper may also have trained against these formulas, ” Crawford alerts.

Roberto Carlos, the king of the Magnus effect 

If penalties are a science, free kicks are not far behind. Defining its trajectory is one of Crawford’s favorite equations when the ball is given effect, as we have allways called it, which also has its scientific name: Magnus effect. “The ball that spins does not go in a straight line, because the rotation moves it to the side,” he said.

In this modality, for Crawford there is a master: Roberto Carlos, king of the Magnus effect in a match against France in 1997. It happened like this: he carefully placed the ball with his hands on the ground. He kicked. The ball passed over the barrier of players, turned in the air to the right, then to the left, hit a stick and entered as a stroke.

“I saw it when i was eight years old and I thought that it was impossible, that it was magic. But years later, using this equation to model Roberto Carlos’s shot, by entering the correct data (the speed of the ball, the distance to the door and the spin that applies to the ball) the formula accurately predicted that movement. It is still amazing. Although now I have an explanation that tells me that it did not break the barriers of physics.”

Marathon in less than two hours

In Tom Crawford’s mind there are not only favorite sport formulas but also graphics. And if there is one that drives him crazy it is the one that calculates, with a curve, when you will be able to run, with conventional methods, a marathon in less than 2 hours, something that it could happen between 2027 and 2035.

The record is owned by Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge, 2:01:39. He obtained it in Berlin in September 2018. In October of this year, the same athlete beat it at 1:59:40, but his feat was not accepted by the International Athletics Federation. “It has not been taken into account because they have broken the rules. As a new official mark, this record below two hours does not count, ”says Crawford.

How they did it? “Creating the perfect race,” says Crawford. And something else: a flat route in a straight line to go through the center of the track; a pair of shoes with carbon fiber that balances and saves 4% of energy; a tape on the leg with lumps (like golf balls) that create streams; a squad of escorts in V to cut the wind (called hares); a car that laser marks the ground so that these satellite corridors maintain the perfect position; a scanner that controls the muscle accumulation of carbohydrates and an enriched diet.

“Where you draw the line between what is due to the human element or an incredible shoe. What is the next? Putting rockets in our soles? ”Crawford wonders. We saw it in swimming a few years ago with high-tech swimsuits that reduce friction with water. They were even questioned for increasing buoyancy. With them, in some competitions 130 records were broken in just two years.

It is clear that mathematics helps to overcome tests and marks. However, in sports there are uncontrollable factors, such as the mental control of athletes, to disarm algorithms. “You can never add that factor to your models. You can never really predict a sport with total certainty. There are many unknown variables, ”reflects the English mathematician.

And, returning to the football game that we lost in 2018, would we have win if we knew the data in depth and having other players thrown the penalties that took us out of the World Cup? According to Crawford, we could have reduced the risk of losing, but this is something we will never know. What is highly certain is that their talks not only reinforce the devotion to sports, but also awake the mathematical vocation of the youngest students.

YouTube Star ‘Rocks’ Math (Schwetzingen Newspaper)

“30kg of plastic has been found in a blue whale’s stomach: how much would that be if a person swallowed just as much proportional to their own bodyweight?” Tom Crawford from Oxford began his guest lecture at Hebel-Gymnasium with this question. The students calculated that you’d find six (empty) plastic shopping bags in a human stomach. The other results worked out over the course of the entertaining presentation were also very impressive.

Tom Crawford doesn’t just have rock music as a hobby, rather with his tattoos and piercings, he looks like a rockstar too – though his tattoos are all to do with maths: since for example, the decimal places of “e” (Euler’s number) wind around his arm, the number pi is also encoded in an infinite series. On his YouTube channel “Tom rocks maths”, he presents science in an entertaining way – sometimes even pieces of clothing fly off during stripteases: “I want to show that maths isn’t always just super serious but it can also be fun.”

IMG_9422

The mathematics lecturer is currently part of the Heidelberg Laureate Forum in Heidelberg. This is where the best maths and computer scientists in the world are meeting up with junior researchers and journalists. Crawford came to Schwetzingen at the invitation of maths teacher Birgit Schillinger. He brought along some exciting questions. The common theme was Tom’s favourite number, pi, which is used in so many formulas. How many ping pong balls are needed to lift the sunken Titanic off the ground? Which factors are involved when a footballer bends a ball so that it flies in an arc past the wall into the goal? When calculating the trajectory, several physical variables play a role. But how? Crawford studied the mathematics behind it. His doctoral thesis was on fluid mechanics: What path does a river take when it flows into the sea? The findings help us to understand sea pollution and possibly help to stop it.

At the end, the Hebelians made Platonic solids, of which, amazingly, there are only five. Strange? No, Tom explains this number by the sum of the angles at the corners – all very logical! Finally a student’s question, which example in mathematics has impressed Tom the most: “It is terrific how the wave characteristic of light follows from Maxwell’s equations, which deal with electricity and magnetism, with only the help of mathematics. Maths is just awesome!”

Birgit Schillinger

Thanks to Cameron Bunney for the translation.

The original article in Schwetzingen can be found here.

WordPress.com.

Up ↑