Monday, 4 July 2011

Developing mathematical thinking through problems, puzzles and games

Last Friday the University of Greenwich hosted an HEA MSOR workshop organised by Peter Rowlett and myself. The aim of the day was to explore the idea of using mathematical problems, puzzles and games in the teaching and support of HE mathematics students. Copies of presentations can all be found here.

After an introduction by Tony Mann I started the day with a talk on how we had encouraged first year mathematics students to 'think' mainly by using techniques mentioned in John Mason's book Thinking Mathematically. I was particularly influenced by this book as a first year undergraduate and was recently asked to review the book for MSOR connections.

Chris Sangwin then took the floor talking about a course he runs at the University of Birmingham that is based on the Moore method. I found this very inspirational - I had previously heard about it at a talk given by Chris Good at the British Mathematical Colloquium (BMC)in Leicester this year (April 2011). I found it particularly exciting that this course had inspired Birmingham maths undergrads to start their own reading group to continue to work on similar problems. Chris finished by saying that although some staff think that this is too resource intensive to be affordable he thinks they can't afford not to do it.

Edmund Harriss was next up giving the session before lunch. A fascinating look at how he has used various mathematical tilings and puzzles to inspire non-mathematical students. Nice to see a shape of constant width (not a circle) being used as a sign for the USA Trail of Tears. I just wish I could find someone to make me some of his wonderful tilings.

Over lunch delegates were encouraged to play some of the mathematical strategy games that are used in the University of Greenwich Maths Café. I was hoping that delegates would see the value of these both in terms of the strategy behind them but also in terms of the value of building new friendships whilst playing them. This obviously happened to an extent as Katie Steckles, aka @Stecks, commented on Twitter that she had made some new friends over a game of Giant Blokus.

The talk after lunch on the Maths Café seemed to go well with a couple of people asking for advice on setting one up. The rest of the afternoon was split into shorter talks by Colin Graham on Origami, Katie Steckles on Maths Busking and Sally Barton on Tarsia Jigsaws and how they can be adapted for undergrad level. All of these were great fun - and a shame I didn't think of taking some pictures of them! After a short tea-break there was an open forum for delegates to give short 5-minute talks connected to the theme - this included an interesting one from John Dore from Kent and we finished with a short time of discussion.

All in all an excellent day and I think the feedback from those attending has shown that there is scope to organise a bigger meeting on this topic some time in the future. Many thanks to Peter Rowlett and everyone at MSOR for organising such a great day.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

University of Greenwich Maths Café

Having spoken about the University of Greenwich Maths Café at various seminars and conferences recently I am aware of the need for us to have a website. However, as that will take a little time, I thought that, for now, a blog entry might suffice.

The Greenwich Maths Café was started in September 2010 with funding from the University's Dragons' Den. It was set up to enable us to increase our support of struggling maths students, stretch our more able mathematicians, provide different ways that staff and students could interact more informally and enable students get to know each other more easily.

The café operates a weekly drop in session where students can either attend to get help with tutorial questions or come and play some of the many strategy games and puzzles that we have. Students particularly appreciate it when staff join in with these.

Student feedback has been very positive with students asking for more sessions, saying that they like the interaction with staff and commenting that the tutorial help has been very valuable. Previous attempts to offer help sessions have not been nearly so successful. The number of students passing our first year courses this year has increased considerably which we think, in part, is down to the provision of the Maths Café.

We have been awarded a grant from HE STEM to increase this provision which will enable us to run more sessions and purchase more equipment. Here is a rough list of the games and puzzles that were purchased initially with some additional comments.
Guidelines for starting a Maths Café like ours will be written soon.

Conference abstract (presentation to follow shortly):

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Why start a blog?

The purpose of this blog is to air my thoughts and feelings concerning teaching maths in HE and all the associated activities and projects that I am involved in.

This week, apart from marking exam papers and projects, I've been putting in abstracts for various conferences. There are three Teaching and Learning conferences at the University of Greenwich this July and I have submitted abstracts on our Maths Cafe and our Mentoring Scheme for the one on Redefining the Student Experience: Directions for learning, teaching and assessment. I am also preparing an abstract for the MSOR-CETL conference in September.

Alongside this I am busy sorting out the arrangements for our first end of year showcase called Greenwich Maths Talent 2011 (GMT2011). We have invited second and third year University of Greenwich maths students, people from professional bodies, alumni and various employers. Professor Tom Barnes (our Pro VC) has agreed to open the event and many of our students' final year project and placement reports will be on display.

This coming week we are hosting Peter Rowlett's workshop on Developing Graduate Skills in HE at Greenwich. This promises to be a very useful time for sharing good practise and discussing new ways to help improve the employability of our students. In the evening there is the annual Gresham College/LMS lecture which I am planning to attend.

It looks like being another busy week!