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?

Getting with the Naked Scientists

14th January, 2010

After about a month  hiatus of science engagement tourism, last week Friday, after downloading my Christmas photos, I took out my dusty notepad, and took a short walk to where science meets entertainment! If there is one group of people who know how to make science, fun and exciting – it is the Naked Scientists. Yes, truth be told that I am fan and saying that does not make me a geek! I was very lucky to have a chat with Dr.Chris Smith founder and editor of the Naked Scientists. For those of you who are less informed on such goings on, the Naked Scientists produce a series of audience-interactive radio programmes and webpages which increase public awareness and stimulate debate about science. Their programs are aired on BBC and Channel Africa  and are available as downloadable webcasts. The shows contain a digest of science news, answers to science questions from listeners, interactive “kitchen science” experiments,  and an interview with two or more guest scientists.  They produce programs that appeal to a broad range of ages from adults to children.

I was particularly intrigued as to whether they had any feedback from the audience who listen to Channel Africa. How many people listen? What do people have to say ? Do they like it? But unfortunately no such evaluation has been done so if there any listeners out there in Africa who have tuned into the program, the Naked Scientists would love to hear from you!

Staying with science in Africa, Chris mentioned how impressed he was with the children who attended  Scifest Africa  (sorry pet peeve, I think it should be called Scifest SOUTH Africa as it is a national event, and I underline national NOT international). He said that even after a long hot ride in a minibus, children were well behaved and anxious to soak up the science. This I attribute to the lack of exposure to science, children in Africa get outside of school and while in schools, science is frankly….. quite dull. (In her head Muza silently blames the teachers).

The success of the Naked Scientist (it is an award winning program) can be attributed to not only their dedication to making science fun but being one of the first to have free audio and visual content on the internet in  2001 and ensuring a good quality production from the word go, this all helped them gather a loyal audience.

So what did I learn?

  • Invest in equipment that will give you a good quality production no matter the expense
  • Whatever you do make it unique – make it stand out from the rest, don’t reinvent the wheel unless you are going to make a better wheel
  • You must plant the seed of scientific wonder in children when they young – age 10
  • Have something for both young and old so that everyone is learning – think of it as a family activity
  • You don’t have to dumb down the science to make it fun
  • Dont take things out of context otherwise you will build a bad reputation with scientists – also related to the point above
  • There are advantages to not having a “commercial” sponsor – people will regard you as impartial and trusted, you can choose what to air, however you need to think creatively about financial sustainability

There is so much interesting science happening out there, so I challenge radio broadcasters in Africa for a change don’t not talk about  local politics or the new JayZ album put some science in the show because trust me when I say there is a whole public out there that is thirsty for knowledge. If you short of content get in touch with the Naked Scientists as they happy to share.  Whilst any would be science enthusiasts why not try one of the Naked Scientists Experiments like making a shelless egg or a DIY potato gun.

The Wellcome Collection: provoking, inspiring, and educational

Provoking, inspiring, educational are the three words that can best describe my emotions after spending two hours in the Wellcome Collection in London.  The Wellcome Collection is a cultural venue where science and art coalesce in contemporary exhibitions that promote scientific discovery and interpretation. It is a place as they say “…… for the incurably curious”. The idea of science and art for some may convey images of abstract objet d’art only for  discerning minds, but the Wellcome Collection is a creative presentation of authentic science that does not need you to be

an art critic to appreciate it. Take for example the obese life like figure that welcomes you at the

"I can not help the way I feel"

entrance to the permanent exhibition Medicine Now on Obesity titled “ I cannot help the way I feel”.  The label reads  “the image of the figure, coupled with the title, leads one into an open contemplation of the plight of the individual.”

The Collection is markedly different from the noisy interactive science centres where children are racing around pushing knobs and pulling handles of counterintuitive exhibits that attempt to dazzle visitors with science. The Collection is not the higher authority speaking down to visitors about what they should know about science, neither are there any blatant efforts to advance scientific literacy nor  attempts  to  demystify science. The Collection could therefore be providing a progressive approach to oppose increasing claims that science centres and museums do not accurately and authentically portray science. Studies have shown that after excursions to science centres,  although visitors leave with a more positive perception of science, they were also more likely to think that science has the answers to all problems and were oblivious to the features of the scientific process that involve reiteration, re-examination, experimentation, discussion and debate* . The question therefore is what and how do people learn from the Wellcome Collection?

Malaria drugs

As a science engagement tourist, I approach all my interactions with a view to what can I  take from this that will work in the Malawian context. The malaria exhibition provoked me to think about possible low cost practical malaria exhibits for the science centre project at the Museum of Malawi – a history of malaria medicine in Malawi from chloroquine to SP to LA, mosquito repellents, malaria testing, and a trendy look at the improper use of mosquito nets for wedding dresses! In Malawi, we have an abundance of local painters, carvers, and musicians why not have them team up with scientists to produce artistic representations of the disease as it affects the Malawian population, of course always bearing mind who the target audience is.

There is no one exhibit at the Collection that took my fancy, I had several favourites: the personal DNA tests and kits where a man armed only with a credit card and internet connection scours the web to find out about his DNA sequence using all the available online tests and kits; or the Biometric identity – an interactive computer exhibit that collects your biometric data (height, fingerprint, iris pattern, pulse rate) and creates a unique graphic icon, or the galvanised steel and various found items that make up the periodic table, or Breathing In at the entrance foyer which is the result of Angela Palmer’s work on capturing the essence of the cleanest and dirtiest places on Earth.

Personal DNA tests and kits

My biometric identity

Periodic table

Guess which is worn in day in coal-producing city of Linfen, China and Cape Grim, Tasmania.

Scientific paper in a drawer

Audio chairs - hardly used.

There were things that also did not work so well – the audio chairs, where you can sit and listen to various talks, the few people I saw on these chairs did not sit on them for more 30 seconds. Some of the cabinets have drawers that people can open but I was surprised to come across drawers that had scientific papers – who would even read them!

In an interview with Dr.Ken Arnold, Head of Public Programmes, he described  the Collection as “champions of other people’s expertise” and “not a place just to popularize what is already known”.

Food for thought

  • Use collaborations to develop exhibits, use local talent, local artist, local researchers, and available local resources.
  • Intriguing representations and beautiful aesthetics can be equally effective and low cost – not everything has to “manufactured” by a specialized exhibit design team.
  • Create atmosphere and ambience that encourages people to engage with the exhibits.
  • Labels providing basic information can be next to exhibits- more information can be put in display books that people can refer to.
  • Feedback wall – visitors draw their interpretations.

What would you like displayed at a science exhibition in Malawi? Post your suggestions here.

* Rennie, L. J., & Williams, G. F. (2002). Science centers and scientific literacy: Promoting a relationship with science. Science Education, 86, 706-726

# Shetty, P. (2008). Home DNA test kits cause controversy. The Lancet, 371 (9626), 1739-1740

Science communication, a quick definition

The definition on Wikipedia is wrong! And I challenge you after reading this blog to revise the Wikipedia definition. Science communication is more than the “media aiming to talk about science with non-scientist.” (I like the addition of the word aiming in there like the media plans to but does not seem to quite get there). Anyway this isn’t meant to be a dig at Wikipedia. According to Burns, O’Conner and Stocklmayer* science communication is

“ the use of appropriate skills, media, activities, and dialogue to produce one or more of the following personal responses to science (the AEIOU vowel analogy): Awareness, Enjoyment, Interest, Opinion-forming, and Understanding”.

Or in the more simpler words of my 12 year old niece its the marketing of science. Its often referred to as public engagement, public understanding of science, science awareness, and science popularization. And it is a growing field, gaining more recognition because science and technology as the Asian tiger economies have shown is the key to economic development and POWER!

Who does it involve?
Several players – the media, public, policymakers and of course the scientists. Science communicators facilitate the activities and dialogue between the stakeholders . Notice I have used the word dialogue – the process of science communication is an exchange, a bilateral flow of information and interaction, it is not I repeat, scientists talking down to non-scientist. The language admittedly must be non-technical and jargon free but in no way does it have to be dumbed down.

What type of activities?
Radio programs, television programs, posters, exhibitions, science centres, science museums, science cafes, debates, seminars, public talks, press releases, movies, songs, paintings, drawings, comics, films, podcasts, magazines, newsletters, websites, presentations, books, blogs….. All these mediums are amenable to channelling all kinds of scientific content – genetics, biotechnology, engineering, mathematics, physics, geology, tropical medicine, ethics, statistics…
If you really think about it, science is being communicated to you all the time, you just might not be noticing it. Think of the laundry soap advert on television or the malaria transmission billboard on the highway or the radio jingle on washing your hands or what about Hollywood films like The Day After Tomorrow. Yes it is all science and it is being communicated to you all the time.

Want to learn more?
Unfortunately as far as I know there are no formal courses for science education or science journalism in Africa. There are the occasional workshops and meetings but I hope with the increasing amount of scientific research on the continent that academic institutions will see the need to develop such courses.

* Burns, T. W., O’Connor, D. J., Stocklmayer, S. M. Science Communication: A Contemporary Definition Public Understanding of Science 2003 12: 183-202

The image of scientists by Quentin Cooper

Am I in the right place? Why is there a group of geriatrics drinking tea and eating custard creams hanging around in the foyer. This cant possible be science and media. Yes I have not mistaken the date it is 2nd November 7:30pm in the Biochemistry Lecture Theatre. Should not there be a mix of mad scientists in stained white lab coats with crazy wild hair and glasses and snoopy young journalists with tape recorders and cameras – the stereotypical images of scientists and journalist. Aagghh… apparently this is a talk being organized through the Cambridge Society for the Application of Research (CSAR) whose aim is to provide “a forum for scientists to meet and discuss topics of interest” still does not explain why there are no young people. A quick ten minutes were spent on matters of the Society – Chairman’s report, finances, approval of committee and in his final remarks the President stated young members are welcome and “ Do consider what a wonderful Christmas present membership to CSAR would be!”

I want to be Quentin Cooper when I grow up! Are adults still allowed to stay that? He is a very skilled science communicator, passionate about science, connected with the right organizations like British Council and British Science Association, gets to do fun and amazing public engagement projects like Cape Farewell and FameLab, and let us not forget he has his own radio show on BBC Radio 4 The Material World. Quentin – I have one question for you, how did you do it?

His presentation was titled Geeks, Freaks, and Eggheads – The Image of Scientists. He discussed how children perceive scientists through the draw a scientists test an experiment which was developed by Margaret Mead in 1957. Common features appear in all the drawings – wild hair, glasses, lab coat, mostly white males with beards, and surrounded by fuming chemical apparatus. Isn’t that what you would draw too? And even if you did a search in Google Images – a series of mad scientists pictures would appear. I wonder whether you would get similar results in Africa particularly in places that had little exposure to Western media. Most people in Western countries picture scientists  like Einstein in the laboratory but surprisingly Einstein who was 26 years old when he proposed his theories was quite a dapper, normal young man and its only when he got older that he became eccentric.


A younger dapper Einstein when he was proposing his theories.

Einstein older

An old crazier Einstein

The picture is no better amongst the British general public when shock of horrors a survey done by British Association and the BBC in 2004 found that Dr Bunsen Honeydew and his assistant Beaker from the Muppet Show were Britain’s favourite TV scientists. This was in response to the question “Who is your favourite screen scientist?” A rewrite of the question – who is  favourite television science presenter yielded only slightly better answers with at least names like Robert Winston and David Attenborough in the top 3 but sadly 54% could not come up with a single name!

I agree with Quentin’s assessment that more screen characters in films and movies should have jobs as scientists. Currently with most programs once a character has a job as a scientist it seems that science is integral to the plot, tv programs and movies should have more characters that have science jobs like Ross in friends who is a palaeontologist but that is not essential to the storyline. This is sort of similar to Asia Alfasi’s work with Muslim characters in her comics but they being Muslim is not integral to the plot. There is scope for a study looking at major television programs and Hollywood films to see how many characters are scientists without this being part of the storyline.

Quentin proposed that these perceptions can be changed by having young children meet scientists. A before and after comparison of draw-a-scientist showed vast positive differences after students met scientists. Other initiatives like Cape Farewell that brings art and science together to discuss and present climate change, or British Council’s Cafe Scientifique,  or the National Portrait exhibition on Science in Focus recasts the image of scientists.

I would like to end with a comment from Quentin which summarizes science communication “If you give people science in the right way they will engage with it”.

Women in Comics

I was rudely awaken last night by drunken screams and howls coming from the courtyard which were then followed by loud intoxicated operatic singing from down the hallway. I guess daylight saving for some meant an extra hour of drinking! I applauded myself for turning down the invitation to go for pub crawl earlier that evening as either it could have been me in such a state or even worse I could have had to patiently and soberly deal with these extremely inebriated people.

After making full use of my extra hour to master the washing machine and dryer – I went on a very long walk to New Hall College to attend a workshop on Women in Comics. A conference celebrating women illustrators, designers, cartoonists, and comic artists and I say comic artists because there is art in comics like Melinda Gibbons Lost Girls which is an artist comic which took sixteen years for her to produce. From the political, to the autobiographical, to the erotic, for children or for adults or teenagers, comics come in all shapes and sizes but they all tell a story, some stories, maybe more important than others. Asia Alfasi, a manga artist, whose interest in comics was stimulated by the French law  in 2004 banning   hajibs in public places. This provoked her to create comics which accurately present positive images of Muslim women who do not see Islam as an oppressive force but actively embrace. In her stories, although  her heroine wears a hajib, religion is not the integral part of the story but only an ingredient in the comic, a subtle way to get people to accept this way of life without judgement.

Also remarkable is the story of Kate Evans a political actvitist producing cartoons on issues like climate change, genetic engineering, and the Middle East. She also takes time out to celebrate motherhood in a personal and informative picture book illustrating the trials, tribulations, joys, and surprises of breastfeeding.

The conference and the venue of the conference, New Hall which has a permanent exhibition of female artists work, was a loud pronouncement that women are taking up places and moving forward in various industries including the arts, the comic arts.

Food for thought

A science communication comic strip for the newspaper

Check out :  Agent Zee  by Robert Inglis, Jive Media, South Africa, Secret Science Alliance by Eleanor Davis and Okido (an art and science magazine for children).

Language domination debate, a history of glamour and music experiments

Glamour, a definition

A language domination debate, a history of glamour and music experiments, these were the three activities I attended on a very miserable gloomy Saturday. The first event featured Professor Stephen Gundle from Warwick University, the author of the book Glamour: A History, interviewed by Dr.Sean Campbell from Anglia Ruskin University. I never attended a session like this before which essential is a live interview. Sean asked Stephen questions and Stephen when answering faced the audience and when he had finished answering would turn to Sean. There were moments when I thought that the two were reading from two different scripts – one having prepared questions he wanted to ask and the other information he wanted to present regardless of the question. He began by commenting on how “slippery” defining glamour is – its different things to different cultures in different times but it is all about image and therefore requires an audience. Leisure, fame, wealth, sex appeal, and beauty are some of the values associated with glamour and the more of these values a person, object, event or place has the more glamorous it is. Glamour is an appealing combination of trash, class, style, and elegance mixed with a pinch of vulgarity.

West African glamour!

West African glamour!

Gender roles in glamour as producers, performers, consumers were discussed as well  glamour in popular music. One of things I found was missing and only gets a cursory mention in his book is the Black American take on glamour, “pimping” and “bling bling” and glamour in the African context which has roots in African culture and tradition. For example in West African fashion and style, the women wear ostentatious headwraps, adorn flamboyant bubus during lavish feasts and celebrations. If there are no books out there, I suggest someone writes one on African Glamour. I also find out it strange that a talk on glamour did not have any pictures – I think he could have illustrated his talk  with a visuals, after all, all the Powerpoint equipment was there.

Which language would conquer the world

If you were to choose the language of world domination would it be Greek or Latin. That was the topic of the debate I attended. Two Professors from each language argued the merits of each language in two rounds of seven minutes each with questions from the audience at the end. Both of Professors came well prepared one brought a Latin cartoon handout and the other dressed in t-shirt promoting the Greek Alexander the Great. A poll was done at the beginning and the end, and Latin won hands down, mainly because it is very predominate in the English language.

Music experiments

You on music – a series of experiments and talks organized by Cambridge Music Education Outreach (CAMEO) probably by far the most organized event that I attended probably because they have a dedicated community outreach project. A series of experiments, hands on activities for children and talks. I took part in the silent disco. We were a group of about fifteen people and unknowingly we were split into two groups listening  to different music through wireless earphones. I was in the group listening to the very slow song Lady in Red by Chris de Burgh and the other group were listening to a very fast track from Spice Girls. What you find is that those who are listening to the same song dance in tune with each other, interact more and more likely to remember things about the person who they were dancing in tune with. Other experiments looked at the influence of music on mood, music in movies and in film, music and memories, music and time – I even had a chance to make a 30 second clip for a action packed scene in the Transformers movie.  The only downside of this event was to find out what the experiments were about you had to go to the Discovery Zone, a room tucked away in the back that had posters explaining the reasoning behind every experiment. This was all somewhat anticlimactic for me to have to read all this information on a posterboard. I would have liked to have known what my participation meant in the big picture e.g. for the silent disco – did I remember more details of the people I was dancing in tune with.

Food for thought

A book on  the history of African Glamour. A talk in Malawi on “pimping” and “blinging”.

If you going to have a talk on something extremely visual like Glamour – why not illustrate it with some pictures.

Debate format – two speakers 7 minutes each, two rounds, first round they put forward their argument and second round they respond to the others argument with time allowed for questions from the audience. A poll should be done at the beginning and at the end to see who was able to change people’s stand point. Speakers should be witty, outspoken, and well versed on the subject. The Chair should do a good job of introducing the subject, controlling for time, handling the poll and questions from the audience. Time should be given at the end before the poll for speakers to summarize.

Children love music! Have activities that basically give children the right to clang on instruments and make noise! If you are going to run a series of experiments come up with a way that allows people to know what the experiments are about and give them a chance to analyse and interpret their results.