Struggling to engage your students with maths? Think outside the box…

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.

Koch Snowflake

A short sneak preview of the full-length ‘Mandelbulbs’ video currently in production. A Koch Snowflake is an example of a 2D fractal with infinite perimeter but finite area. Full details of the calculation in the final video… COMING SOON!

BIG STEM Communicators Network

As a new member of the BIG STEM Communicators Network I was very pleased to be featured in the member spotlight for spring 2019. (The original article is ‘members only’ so I’ve copied the text below.)

“As a new member of the BIG community I would like to introduce myself as the ‘Naked Mathematician’ (yes you did read that correctly). I am a Maths Tutor at the University of Oxford with a goal to reduce fear and anxiety towards maths. One of the ways in which I do this is to take my clothes off – what better way to emphasise that the subject is not as serious and intimidating as many people think than by teaching in my underwear! The concept began as a series of videos on my YouTube channel entitled ‘Equations Stripped’ where I strip back some of the most famous equations in maths (and myself) layer-by-layer so that everyone can understand, and has since evolved into a live performance now touring universities across the UK. My efforts to bring maths to a new audience have been recognised by the University of Oxford, where I was awarded first prize in the Outreach and Widening Participation category at the OxTALENT awards, and I have also been shortlisted for the Institute of Physics Early Career Communicator award.

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The ‘Naked Mathematician’ is of course not appropriate for every audience and as such is only a small part of the work that I do to share my love of maths. My ‘Funbers’ series was broadcast throughout 2018 on BBC Radio, where in each episode I look at numbers more closely than anyone really should to bring you the fun facts that you didn’t realise you’ve secretly always wanted to know… I also try to involve my audience in the creative process as much as possible by issuing a call for questions on social media and then hosting a vote to decide the topic of my next video in the ‘I Love Mathematics’ video series. Finally, I combine my love of sport with maths in my popular ‘Maths v Sport’ talk which features a live penalty shootout on stage and an attempt to break a running world record (appropriately scaled of course!).

All of the material that I produce is available for free on my website tomrocksmaths.com and associated social media profiles @tomrocksmaths on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. I am very excited to have joined BIG and look forward to working with the community to help to share STEM subjects with the world!”

Maths and the Media

Arriving at St John’s in 2008 to begin my study of mathematics, I was certain that within 4 years I would be working in the city as an actuary or an investment banker. Whilst I loved my subject, I saw it as means to obtain a good degree that would set me up for a career in finance. I’m not sure I could have been more wrong…

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My current journey began towards the end of my second year, where I found myself enjoying the course so much that I wanted to continue to do so for as long as possible. This led me to research PhD programmes in the UK and the US, and I was fortunate enough to be offered a place to study Applied Maths at the University of Cambridge in 2012. During my time at Oxford, I found myself straying further and further into the territory of applied maths, culminating in a fourth-year course in fluid mechanics – the study of how fluids such as water, air and ice move around. This ultimately led to my PhD topic at Cambridge: where does river water go when it enters the ocean? (If you’re interested to find out more I’ve written a series of articles here explaining my thesis in simple terms.)

As part of my PhD I conducted experiments, worked on equations and even took part in a research cruise to the Southern Ocean. It was on my return from 6 weeks at sea that I had my first taste of the media industry via a 2-month internship with the Naked Scientists. I would spend each day searching out the most interesting breaking science research, before arranging an interview with the author for BBC radio. It was great fun and I learnt so much in so many different fields that I was instantly hooked. Upon completion of my PhD I went to work with the Naked Scientists full time creating a series of maths videos looking at everything from beehives and surfing, to artwork and criminals. You can watch a short trailer for the Naked Maths series below.

My work with the BBC and the media in general ultimately led me to my current position as a Mathematics Tutor at three Oxford colleges: St John’s, St Hugh’s and St Edmund Hall. This may not sound like the media industry, but the flexibility of the position has allowed me to work on several projects, including launching my website and my YouTube channel @tomrocksmaths where I am currently running two ongoing series. In the first, Equations Stripped, I strip back the most important equations in maths layer-by-layer; and for the second series in partnership with the website I Love Mathematics, I answer the questions sent in and voted for by students and maths-enthusiasts across the world.

Alongside my online videos, I am also writing a book discussing the maths of Pokémon – Pokémaths – and have a weekly show with BBC radio called ‘Funbers’ where I tell you the fun facts about numbers that you didn’t realise you’ve secretly always wanted to know. I have also recently presented at conferences in the US and India and hold regular talks at schools and universities, including for the Oxford Invariants and the Maths in Action series at Warwick University where I faced my biggest audience yet of 1200.

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Looking back at my time at St John’s, I never would have imagined a career in the media industry lay before me, but the skills, experience and relationships that I formed there have undoubtedly helped to guide me along this path. I think it just goes to show that Maths is possibly the most universal of all subjects and really can lead to a career in any industry.

You can follow Tom on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @tomrocksmaths for the latest updates.

SJC Inspire: how to design a successful video game

Very excited to announce the launch of the SJC Inspire digital magazine this week – a project I’ve been working on for the past few months in my role as Access and Outreach Associate for STEM at St John’s College, Oxford.

The first issues is ‘how to design a successful video game’ and features articles by researchers at St John’s, video interviews with students at the college, and practice puzzles set (and solved) by real Oxford tutors (myself included). I’ve highlighted some of my favourites below, but be sure to check out the full contents of the issue on the website here.

Maths in video games

My former tutorial partner, James Hyde, now works for Creative Assembly developing hit titles such as Halo Wars and Halo Wars 2. Here he explains how maths has helped him to land his dream job…

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Fun and games at the circus

Try out this maths puzzle set by St John’s maths tutor Dr David Seifert. If you send your answers in to inspire@sjc.ox.ac.uk you might even win a goodie bag!

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How to earn billions by giving something away for free

St John’s Economics tutor Dr Kate Doornik explains the pricing strategy behind the incredibly successful ‘Fortnite: Battle Royale’. Originally given away for free, it is expected to make over $3 billion in sales in 2018…

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