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Fraction of the benefits

Bryan Dye surfs the Internet to find what it has to offer in maths.

As the Internet revolution continues, its rate of growth alone would be a job for any mathematician. But maths teachers and students would do better to exploit the Net for gems to enliven their classes - and by making their own contributions.

At Research Machines' Internet for Learning site, there's a massive list of mathematical sites, ordered alphabetically. The encyclopedic collection of all things mathematical at Eric's Treasure Trove site took nine years to create. Theorems, facts, proofs and definitions are all ordered alphabetically, from the 15-slide puzzle (15 square tablets and one space in a four-by-four grid) to Zsigmondy's theorem (something to do with prime factors).

The Canadian-based Math Forum includes a host of resources from schools around the country; at other sites you'll find collections of puzzles, conundrums and optical illusions.

There are specialist areas too. At the one on pi, you can search for your birthdate in pi's decimal equivalent, 3,14159...... Other sites are devoted to the Fibonacci sequence, fractals, M C Escher and the history of mathematics.

Want to know the current record holder for the world's largest prime number? You can find out on the Web. On September 3 this year David Slowinski and Paul Gage found that 2 to the power of 1257787 minus 1 is prime. The number has 378,632 digits and took a Cray supercomputer six hours to test.

Several universities have sites, including Glasgow (the STEPS project) and Essex. So have the the Association of Teachers of Mathematics, the Royal Statistical Society, UNICEF, the National Lottery and many manufacturers, software and book publishers. One problem is the lack of quality control, but most educational sites contain some-thing of value.

Apart from being a source of information, the Web is invaluable for easy communication. Contacting a site in Australia appears no different to contacting one in your own town. Schools can link together, exchange information via e-mail and ask for responses on a topic - say a statistical survey on the weather - and get them back promptly.

Microsoft has made freely available an add-on to Excel which allows you to convert any Excel spreadsheet - now a standard maths tool - to the HTML format used to create Web pages. In another development, a software company in the US has developed a spreadsheet which is interactive over the Internet itself.

And during this academic year, Norfolk will pilot a scheme in which it will publish a mathematical puzzle once a month on the Internet, giving teams of pupils from various schools the chance to work it out.

The only problem with this new form of publishing is letting everyone know your work is there. Ironically, the easiest way is to resort to traditional publishing. Get your address into the magazines and newspapers which give listings of new sites.

"Search engines" on the Net itself can search for all mentions of key words, giving you a list of sites that may be relevant. But you will be faced with a site list thousands of items long if your key words are "mathematics, spreadsheet".

As as busy teacher, I've also found the Internet a useful source of materials - I've ordered and paid for a music CD on the Net. On a more mundane level any page can be saved on your own computer and printed out.

Some sites offer introductory guides to popular software - Microsoft Excel, for example. There is also a step-by-step guide for the Texas Instruments TI-82 calculator. You can "download" shareware, demo copies of software (for example COYPU, the new graph processor from the Shell Centre, based on MousePlotter), pay for the full program and download the documentation too. This is bound eventually to become the norm for software publishers.

You can also download files to go with your programs, which often come from third parties, not the original publishers.

It is fairly straightforward now for anyone to publish their own Web pages. Though any page is basically a simple mix of text and graphs, there is a lot of potential for creativity.

For example, simple animations can be created which the Web browsers, like Navigator, can read. Try your hand at an illustration of transformation geometry that the whole world can view.

Teachers can publicise competitions and make their best worksheets available or they can use it to get some things off their chests - complaints about the curriculum, the changing standards at A-level, the pass rate at GCSE or the Secretary of State, for example. Publish and be damned.

As the Internet expands, so do its facilities like full animation, sound, video and live communication. If you're not already doing it, why not give it a try?

Bryan Dye is head of maths at the Hewett School, Norwich u Addresses for all the sites mentioned in this article, with further illustrations of the points made can be found at the author's own site, MathsNet at: http:

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