This week I had an opportunity to speak to some aspiring mathematicians about their future and to ask them to think about maths. Not just to answer the questions, and not to just ask ‘why’ without purpose, but to try and find a middle ground between the two. I also obviously tried to include some of the research the institute does, to tie it to my own research.
The first thing I asked the kids to do was to explain to me an example of using maths. Most of them came up with some interesting ideas that focused on measuring quantities and making calculations. I then asked them to come up with a definition. They all said similar things, all along the lines of ‘measuring, calculating, and using data’. Which is a great answer! But was not what I was looking for. ‘OK, give me an example of something that doesn’t use maths.” was my next question. A few hazarded some guesses and were all shown that maths IS in there somewhere! We agreed that a great definition of maths would be that it is simply problem solving. Everything else you do with maths is simply a tool to solve the problem with.
I then talked about earnings and aspirations of mathematicians (did you know that aside from medicine the maths degree is the best paid degree to have in the world?) and went into my own mathematical work. Not the modelling (bit too complicated for 15 year olds) but the actual calculations of the parallax. We went through an example and the kids had to answer the question themselves. They had to solve the problem, I didn’t spoon feed it to them. I think this made for interesting discussion.
That was the end of it, just time to wrap up (DO MATHS AT A LEVEL) and then to give them all a brain sweet for taking part so nicely. All in all I think it went well!