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.

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