What kids learn from masterclasses

So, I had intended to write my next blog post about the amazing weekend I spent at the MathsJam.  But I have been finding it difficult to distill the many wonderful things I experienced and learnt into one little blog post, so in the meantime I thought I’d share some of the comments I got after this morning’s masterclass.

For those of you who don’t know, the idea of running a series of Saturday morning masterclasses was invented by the Royal Institution.  As far as I know, the masterclasses were a spin-off of  the Christmas lectures, which started in 1825 and are still going to this day! (This year’s lectures will be given by Dr Mark Miodownik about why size matters, aired from 14-18th December on the BBC. Don’t miss them!)  Anyway, the idea is to get school pupils of about age 13-14 (that’s S2 in Scotland and Year 9 in England) to hear a series of lectures about the kind of maths they’d never see in school.

Monster KnotMy masterclass is all about learning the basics of Knot Theory: what a mathematical knot is, how we can distinguish different knots and how they are useful in chemistry and biology.  If you are interested, you can download the notes and have a read for yourself.  One of the main points I try to get across is that there are areas of maths which are not about numbers or equations.  I also try to stress the point that there are some easy-to-state questions which mathematicians still haven’t managed to answer, such as the unknotting numbers of some relatively small knots.  This is because it’s easy as a school pupil, and even as an undergraduate, to think that maths has all been done already; either that, or that the remaining questions are too difficult for anyone to be able to solve.

At the end of this morning’s lecture, I handed out an evaluation form for the students to let me know which bits of the class they had liked or found difficult.  Here are some of the answers that made me smile the most.

What did you learn from the masterclass?

  • “That knots aren’t just boring knots in string”
  • “Basically everything about knots” (Haggis: surely not, or else what would I be doing a PhD on??)
  • “That knots have something to do with maths.”
  • “That knots are mathematical and that your body solves them all the time.” (Haggis: indeed it does! Everyone is already a secret knot theorist without realising it!)
  • “That knots aren’t as simple as they look.”
  • “The spelling of mathematical words.” (Haggis: that has got to be the most random answer I’ve seen yet…)

How did the masterclass change your perception of mathematics?

  • “You can have fun doing maths and it makes you feel brainy.”
  • “It showed me that maths can be pretty.”
  • “I didn’t know there were so many questions still to be answered.”
  • “I found that some areas of maths are incredibly boring, but others are very fascinating.”
  • “I’ve seen that maths is such a huge subject.”
  • “I notice things in life that I didn’t before. I’ve learnt to see things in a different way.”
  • “Maths is in everything, not just in textbooks in school.”

What was your least favourite part of the masterclass?

  • “Getting up early on a Saturday morning.”
  • “The 2D stuff – my brain doesn’t work like that.”
  • “Not getting to make my own knots.” (Haggis: I may try to change this in a future masterclass.)

I feel really privileged to have had the chance to give my own masterclass and change the perceptions of so many young minds.  It would be interesting to see how many of these pupils go on to study maths at university, and whether it was the masterclasses that inspired them to do so.  (If anyone from the RI is reading this, please let me know if any studies have been done about this!)

Right, it is time I dealt with all the photos and videos I took at the MathsJam so that I can tell you about some of the personalities and maths problems I encountered there.  Bear with me!


4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by haggisthesheep on November 20, 2010 at 7:26 pm

    For those of you who remember my last post, you will be disappointed to hear that I didn’t get to use my AMAZING GIANT VORTEX CANNON at either of my two masterclasses this month. It seems that every university is overly paranoid about the smoke alarms going off. Poo. But never fear! I shall find a way to use it! And I have some video footage of Matt Parker’s (aka @standupmaths) vortex cannon from the MathsJam which I may be able to put online soon.


  2. “You can have fun doing maths and it makes you feel brainy.”
    Awesome comment, and so very true 🙂 Sounds like it was a really great session, well done!


  3. Posted by Diane from the Ri on November 21, 2010 at 10:45 am

    Re: Following up the students who attend masterclasses.
    We’ve done various small studies in London and had a national evaluation a couple of years ago on the Ri Secondary Masterclass Network, all with good feedback. It’s always great to get personal feedback from students and/or parents a few years later. I had one only this morning from a parent whose daughter has just gone to university and who was inspired to continue with maths and physics after attending masterclasses.
    2011 is the 30th Anniversary of the first Ri masterclass series and we’re trying to find as many past attenders as we can to help us celebrate. Please put out the word for them to contact us.


  4. post Awesome. Vraiment apprécié la lecture de votre blog.


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