Motivating Mathematics!

17th January 2010

Did you know that maths ended the Second World War! The Turing Bombe, a part-electronic, part-mechanical code-breaking machine and forerunner of the modern computer,  cracked 3,000 messages a day sent on Nazi Enigma machines. Breaking the codes would not have been possible without knowledge of mathematics. This and other interesting facts I learnt during an Enigma Project Road show at the Thomas Deacon Academy. The Enigma Project is a presentation about the history and mathematics of codes and code breaking, from ancient Greece to the present, including a demonstration of a genuine WWII enigma machine. Then later, in workshops,  students had a chance to break codes themselves. The project is part of the Millennium Maths Project a Cambridge initiative to share the excitement and importance of understanding mathematics to everyone. Also on the day, I had a chance to observe the Hands on Maths Road show which is a collection of hands-on mathematical puzzles, games and activities designed to promote creative approaches to mathematics and strategic thinking and to stimulate mathematical curiosity.

When did school become such fun? And maths so enjoyable? It was wonderful to watch the Year 9 students intrigue with the games and puzzles. Puzzles are fun for everyone – so if you can put some mathematics in there all the better. The activities in both the Enigma Project and Hands on Math show are low tech – print outs, cards, dominoes, plastic cups and where materials are not available you can always improvise with a bit of paper and coloured pencils or try to use local materials like bottle tops. The NRICH website is full of activities for teachers and students to try. The Disease Dynamics Schools Pack has a huge potential for linking scientists and school children in Malawi, by using maths and science to understand how diseases spread through populations. Not only do the students have an enriched science and mathematical experience, they carry out their own research projects and develop communication and presentation skills.

Here are just a few things I learnt from the Millennium Maths Project.

For Roadshows

  • With puzzles try and encourage students not to give up until they can reason to find the solution
  • Students will be enthusiastic if you are
  • Be approachable but stern when dealing with students
  • Presenters should advise the school to let the students know they are coming so that the students can be prepared, you can do this by sending the school a poster for them to put up
  • Reward good student behaviour
  • You can have various levels of difficulty – easy – green, medium – yellow,  hard – red
  • Laminate print out exercises for reuse

For other engagement activities

  • To hook teachers in try and show how it is relevant to the curriculum
  • Endorsement by recognised institutions increases credibility
  • Offer a range of activities – for those who find mathematics difficult, a different presentation of maths may be helpful
  • Retention strategies – once you have developed a relationship with a school, think about ways to maintain a good relationship with them.

Why not try this puzzle? Taken from the NRICH website

Think of a number.
Multiply it by 3.
Add 6.
Take away your start number.
Divide by 2.
Take away your number.

You have finished with 3! How does this work?

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