“In the stomach of a blue whale 30 kilos of plastic have been found: How much would that be if a person swallows just as much in relation to their own body weight?” With this question, Tom Crawford from Oxford began his guest lecture at Hebel-Gymnasium. The students calculated that there would be six (empty) plastic shopping bags in the human stomach. Very impressive were also the other results, which were developed in the course of the highly entertaining presentation.

Tom Crawford has not only rock music as a hobby, but he also looks like a rock star with his tattoos and piercing – but his tattoos have to do with math: Since, for example, the decimal places of “e” (Euler number) wind around the arm or the number pi has been encrypted as an infinite series. On his Youtube channel “Tom rocks math” he presents science in a fun way – the clothes shreds sometimes fly during the striptease: “I want to show that math is not always only downright serious, but fun.”

The mathematics lecturer is currently in Heidelberg as part of the Heidelberg Laureate Forum. This is where the best math and computer scientists in the world meet up with junior researchers and journalists. At the invitation of mathematics teacher Birgit Schillinger Crawford came to Schwetzingen. He had brought exciting questions. The common thread was Tom’s favorite number pi, which is used in so many formulas. How many table tennis balls are needed to lift the sunken Titanic off the ground? What factors are involved when a football player cuts a ball so that it flies past the wall in the arch in the arch? When calculating the trajectory, several physical variables play a role. But how? Crawford was studying mathematics. His doctoral thesis was on fluid mechanics: What paths does a river take when it flows into a sea? The findings help to understand the pollution of the oceans and possibly stop it.

In the end, the Hebelians make platonic bodies, of which, surprisingly, there are only five. Strange? No, Tom explains the number with the sum of angles at the corners – all very logical! Finally, a student question, which has impressed Tom the most in mathematics: “It is terrific, as follows from the Maxwell equations, which deal first with electricity and magnetism, only with the help of mathematics, the wave property of the light. Math is just awesome! “

Birgit Schillinger

The original article in Schwetzingen can be found here.

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.

Oxplore – the University of Oxford’s digital outreach portal – has recently reached its 50th BIG question! To celebrate we’ll be hosting a special livestream debate at 2pm on March 29th which you can join for FREE by registering here.

If you’re not already excited (and trust me you really should be), then here are some of my favourite highlights from the live events so far to get you in the mood!

Very happy to announce my appointment as a Holgate Lecturer with the London Mathematical Society (LMS). The position means that the LMS are supporting my outreach work for the next 4 years so all you have to do if you want me to come and give a talk/run a workshop at your school is to get in touch here.

You can find out more about the details of the scheme on the LMS website – and make sure you check out the other amazing speakers.

If you’re not already excited about the prospect of Tom Rocks Maths coming to your school then here are some examples sessions to really get you in the mood for some maths!

1. Maths v Sport (Y9 onwards)
How do you take the perfect penalty? What is the limit of human endurance? Where is the best place to attempt a world record? Maths has all of the answers and I’ll be telling you how to use it to be better at sport (results may vary).

2. Maths: it’s all Greek to me! (Y9 onwards)
You’ve probably heard of Pythagoras, Archimedes and Plato, but do you know the sins behind their stories? From murder and deceit to running naked down the street, the Ancient Greek mathematicians were anything but boring. I’ll be telling you all about their mischief – mathematical or otherwise – as I bring the history of maths to life (featuring live experiments and togas).

3. The Millennium Problems (Y10 onwards)
The seven greatest unsolved problems in mathematics, each worth a cool $1 million… In this session I’ll introduce each of the puzzles in turn and try to give you a feel for the maths that you’ll need to know if you’re planning to take one of them on.

4. Navier-Stokes Stripped (Y12 onwards)
The Navier-Stokes equations model the flow of every fluid on Earth, but yet we know very little about them. So little in fact, there is currently a $1 million prize for anyone that can help to improve our understanding of how these fascinating equations work. In this session, I’ll strip back the Navier-Stokes equations layer-by-layer to make them understandable for all… Based on my hit YouTube series ‘Equations Stripped’.

5.How to make everything about maths (Teachers)
Since completing my PhD, I have transitioned from maths researcher to maths communicator with the launch of my outreach programme ‘Tom Rocks Maths’. In this session I will discuss the most successful ways to increase engagement with maths through examples from my work with the BBC, the Naked Scientists, and from my YouTube channel, website and social media pages @tomrocksmaths.