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Stars before their eyes

Mathematician breaks from unlocking secrets of cosmos to bring her subject to life for pupils, writes Warwick Mansell

Lisa Wright is a mathematician who studies our galaxy for a living. Her other job is to persuade pupils that people like her are not from another planet.

The Cambridge university don, who spends much of her time trying to understand how the Milky Way was formed, is taking part in an innovative project linking schools with academics.

The scheme, called Motivate, uses video-conferencing to give pupils as young as seven access to tuition and advice from some of the country's leading mathematicians and scientists.

Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, is a fan of the Cambridge-based scheme and believes it could be a model for other attempts to enliven subject teaching in schools.

He recently watched Dr Wright and Jenny Gage, one of the project's organisers, sit at a desk in Cambridge's new maths faculty and conduct a lesson by video-conference with pupils from two schools in Redbridge, north-east London.

At the other end of the link, Year 7 pupils from Seven Kings high school in Ilford and nearby Christchurch primary showed off colourful models they had made of the planets in our solar system.

Dr Wright had set up the project in an earlier session and it had caught pupils' imagination as she and Miss Gage fielded questions about the length of time it takes planets to orbit the sun and how they had designed their models to scale.

Margaret Quinney, head of maths at Seven Kings, said: "Pupils have been working with ideas normally associated with A-level. They have made a tremendous effort and it has been a wonderful opportunity for them."

Questioned by Mr Clarke, the three pupils said they wanted to be scientists when they grew up.

Motivate worked with 50 schools last year and applications of interest have doubled this year. The scheme focuses on areas of social disadvantage and is part of the Millennium Maths Project, which offers an email service for pupils to fire maths problems at Cambridge students.

Dr Wright is one of a number of academics who take lessons on a voluntary basis. She said the project brings maths alive for youngsters - and helps to breaks down barriers.

The mathematician is the product of a mixed comprehensive and appears to challenge the "boffin" stereotype. "This scheme shows pupils scientists can be human, young and female - we don't all wear open-toed sandals," said the 27-year-old. I can explain how I got to where I am, and hopefully they can relate to that."

TES Teacher magazine 30

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