How games help pupils shape up

13th May 2005 at 01:00
A week of fun activities and visiting celebrities raised the profile of maths in one Essex school and is set to become an annual event. Peter Ransom reports

Students at Brentwood County High School had a wonderful week of maths in April, organised by Suman Ghosh, deputy head of maths.

To celebrate their specialist status as a science, maths and computing school, Suman took on the role of Maths Week co-ordinator and planned an exciting programme of events to raise awareness of maths and increase knowledge and understanding of the subject. Pupils first became aware of the occasion when posters appeared around the school just before the spring break.

Suman was keen to explain why the Essex school had organised the Maths Week. "I felt something was needed to enthuse the students about mathematics," he said. "It has recently been National Science Week and I felt it a great shame there isn't a similar national event for mathematics.

Our pupils should have something to remind them of the purpose of mathematics, that integrates the pleasure one gets from working with the subject."

He pointed out that pupils go on international exchange visits to practise foreign languages, and fieldwork visits for geography and history, but don't often get time to do extramural and extracurricular work in maths.

At first, there was some resistance to letting pupils have the extra time, but on mentioning that they sometimes have time out of maths for other subjects, the week was given the go-ahead.

The activities were guaranteed to dispel notions that maths is dull or boring, starting with Year 7 students having some fun with the Cambridge University Hands-On Roadshow. This featured a giant SOMA cube puzzle (a three-by-three cube which is dissected into seven pieces, devised in 1936 by the Danish poet, Piet Hein), Tangrams (a set of pieces that form a series of two-dimensional puzzles), Tower of Hanoi, Instant Insanity (arrange four cubes in a straight line so that each line shows a different colour), logic puzzles and lots more.

The Maths Week attracted some guest presenters, such as Johnny Ball, who has been popularising maths since the late 1970s, when he hosted his first television programme, Think of a Number. After failing at school, he taught himself recreational maths, which opened up a world of new opportunities for him. He has visited thousands of schools and colleges with his Funtastic Maths lecture, in which he traces the history of maths to show that everyone is capable of genius, just like Archimedes, Galileo, Kepler, Descartes and Newton - it is all a question of determination.

Kjartan Poskitt, creator of Pongo McWhiffy and all the other colourful characters in the well-known Murderous Maths series, entertained Year 8 students with his show. Kjartan talked for about an hour on topics such as number squares and flexagons - and everyone had a bit of a laugh.

Kjartan's flair for entertaining people with maths is fantastic - his website is well worth a visit. He has a list of fascinating figure facts to which pupils can add their own discoveries. For example, did you know that:

* Four is the only number that has the same number of letters as itself.

* TWENTY NINE uses 29 straight lines.

* Eight is the only cube number that is one less than a square number.

* 692 = 4761 and 693 = 328509 - taken together, these two numbers use each digit from 0 to 9 once only.

Some of the games are presented in unusual forms. Instead of Connect 4, the pupils play Human Connect 4. This is a variation of the well-known game, which is a firm family favourite. Unlike the usual version, which is made up of a frame and plastic counters, students marked out a huge playing area on the floor of the library and players used fellow students instead of counters.

Suman played a major part in the week. In a session called "Probably the best maths you'll ever learn", he told Year 9 students how probability can be used to gain an advantage in all sorts of situations. The session was based on a lecture by broadcaster and author Dr Simon Singh, with additional material from Suman. Dr Singh says: "We live in a risk society, one in which there are no sure-fire bets. But mathematics may be able to help us predict the future."

Suman decided to develop the work after hearing Dr Singh give a Royal Institution lecture and he was able to borrow Singh's PowerPoint presentation and adapt it to the work students do at Brentwood High School.

There was also the Rubik Restoration by the unofficial world champ - science teacher Ian Crisp, who was available at lunchtimes throughout Maths Week to show how it is done.

For a small fee - a minimum donation of pound;1 to Comic Relief - the cube was back to square one in almost no time at all. On a bad day, it takes Ian around two minutes and 15 seconds to unscramble the perplexing puzzle. In the past, he has done it in just eight seconds, which is 8.5 seconds faster than the world record.

He says: "There are 43 million million million different patterns that can be reached from the start position and I can deal with each and every one of them." He has even written a book about the maths behind the Rubik Cube and how to solve it.

This was a great opportunity to empower pupils before their key stage 3 SATs or GCSE exams, and Suman was delighted to be able to organise the speakers at this point in the year. "I feel very excited that we are making pupils more enthusiastic about their maths," he said. "I want to inspire the whole country to have a National Mathematics Week next year."

Bill Richardson, MBE, a past president and now secretary of the Mathematical Association, said: "Events like this promote the usefulness and enjoyment of mathematics. It is tremendous to see schools take such an active view of mathematics and I hope that some of the mathematics fairs that take place in the UK are expanded into annual events taking place over a whole week like this."

Royal Institution Mathematics Masterclasses also provide many opportunities for high-attaining Year 9 pupils. These are held in different areas and generally involve a workshop session of two-and-a-half hours on a Saturday morning.

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