Maths magic in a suitcase

Chris Olley finds that the right resources are all it takes to get students excited about numbers

It is Friday afternoon at St Paul's Catholic College in Sunbury-on-Thames and Year 7 are in animated activity. Although they are discussing the upcoming weekend, the pupils are not having a "lazy" afternoon; they are taking part in a hands-on maths lesson using materials from Fresco Interactives.

The students circulate freely among a range of engaging tasks on beautifully produced, colourful display panels with dry wipe pens attached. Some are working alone, others congregate in small groups. They stop when their interest has been captured and get stuck in.

One panel shows the Fibonnaci sequence, tempting students to look for patterns. The girl working here is investigating odd and even numbers and is tempted to explore the prime numbers in the sequence. She had earlier worked on a drum-shaped display looking at the patterns in Pascal's triangle, which she said was quite easy. Fibonnaci proves to be a bigger challenge and she is completely absorbed.

From the other side of the room her friend calls her over to try out "Tables against time", the most popular activity with the group. The referee rolls a 12-sided die to choose a table and two players compete to place the solutions printed on the faces of a set of cubes on to the answer grid. There are some nice heavy strips for playing Nim, which is another favourite.

A group of boys I talk to had engaged with issues of strategy, knew how the game was going to end and were clear on the best number to choose given your opponent's move.

There is a clever activity using Pentominos, which involves placing the shapes on a 100 square and investigating the numbers covered by the shape. GCSE coursework fans will recognise T-totals as a special case of this.

Gillian Lomas is the inspiration behind this innovative collection of maths resources. Her background is in interactive practical science exhibitions but a combination of factors led to the creation of Fresco Interactives. She was influenced by Paul Stephens, whose Magical Mathsworks Circus tours the country engaging young people in interactive, hands-on mathematical activities. And the idea of MathFests - bringing maths puzzles and games into shopping centres and school festivals - was beginning to take hold during Maths Year 2000. Putting these sources together, Gillian developed the idea for an interactive maths system in a box.

The final kit was produced when she joined forces with Fresco, a company which manufactures display systems. The kit itself actually comes in four large boxes, but it's nothing that a few strong students and a class full of willing helpers cannot handle. The whole kit can be set out and put away in little more than the time needed for a modest practical lesson. The materials are hard-wearing and the displays are printed on the inside of plastic laminates, so they will not rub off. Everything has its own holder and the complete kit fits neatly into a set of suitcases. At the very least the Fresco Interactives kit provides a range of engaging maths activities that are bright and lively. Students leave a maths lesson interested and contented and say good things about their maths experience.

Simon Winchcombe, head of maths at St Paul's, says that maths should be "seen, discovered and connected". He sees the Fresco materials as an excellent source for discovery. A number of the activities engage students with abstract ideas and provide a springboard into successfully developing mathematical thinking.

The experienced maths teacher will be able to extend the activities that have engaged students the most. Simon, though, is not sure whether he could use the kit in an ordinary classroom setting with 30 mixed ability students. It would need a large room and probably another adult, he says.

A prime reason for getting the kit was to involve the school's feeder primaries. Headteachers and maths co-ordinators met to see the kit and were delighted. It will tour the primaries giving each school a fortnight for pupils to get a really positive experience of maths with equipment that has come from their prospective secondary. Equally, it would be ideal for use in numeracy summer schools providing activities that everyone can engage in, as well as extending higher achievers.

Fresco Interactives has brought together a set of tried and tested activities in a highly useable format. In an age when the focus is so heavily on exam preparation it is an uplifting experience to be among students keen to explore mathematical ideas just because they are interested.

The Numeracy Strategy Kit costs pound;2,250 (excluding VATand delivery). Parts of the kit can be bought separately.A free video is available for schools considering purchasing the Numeracy Strategy Kit by contacting Fresco Interactives, Unit C6, Tenterfields Business Park, Luddenfoot, West Yorkshire HX2 6EQ.

Tel: 01422 886883


Chris Olley is a maths education consultant

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