It all adds up...

25th February 2000 at 00:00
Douglas Blane reports on Maths Year 2000 Scotland, starting on Monday

Albert Einstein never had much confidence in his mathematical ability, and throughout an illustrious career as a physicist, collaborated on his theories of space and time with mathematicians who would give him help with the hard bits.

It's all relative of course. Most of us would be delighted to be as weak at maths as Albert Einstein. But his feelings of inadequacy do highlight an almost universal truth - mention algebra or trigonometry to most of us and our first reaction is a wince. Maths lessons are one of those painful experiences that everyone has to endure but few wish to remember. Which means that if young Jane or Jamal wants help with their maths homework, that's usually the moment we need to prune the roses. So fear of mathematics gets passed from one generation to the next.

But it doesn't have to be that way. On Monday at Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh the Scottish Executive is launching an initiative to encourage parents to take an interest in children's maths education, to reduce the number of people living restricted lives through poor numeracy, and to improve the perception and understanding of mathematics, called Maths Year 2000 Scotland.

"Maths is central to everyday life," said Sam Galbraith, the Minister for Children and Education, when he announced the scheme in January.

"We use maths in almost every decision we make, from which bus to catch to which mortgage to buy. It is therefore vital that our children leave school with the numeracy skills they will need to organise their lives. Maths Year 2000 aims to draw attention to the need to improve these skills."

The Scottish Executive is now supporting the UK-wide initiative which has been up and running since the beginning of the year, with a programme to promote maths and improve numeracy skills in Scottish schools.

At the Scottish launch next week teachers, pupils, parents and business representatives will be invited to take part in activities and learn about the relevance of maths in everyday life.

Maths Year 2000 will not be aunched into a vacuum. Activities like masterclasses and workshops already exist but tend to be fragmented and geographically patchy, so one of the first tasks, says co-ordinator Scott Keir, is to collate and publicise a listing of activities throughout the country.

"We will also be providing at least 10 new maths events, a mixture of talks and workshops aimed at adults and children, in locations from Galashiels to Orkney. We will be giving support and advice to the organisers of other maths events - we're keen for anyone organising a maths-related event in Scotland to contact us to see how we can help.

"And we'll be working with adult basic education providers to encourage parents who need help with their maths skills to come forward. We want to encourage parents to practise maths with their children, just as many of them have always practised reading."

Adam McBride, a member of the advisory board for Maths Year 2000 Scotland, is professor of mathematics at Strathclyde University. His day job is mathematical research that can be understood by only a few, but he has also for many years been making maths accessible and fascinating to the many.

"There are all sorts of things that can be done. I was involved recently with a superbly organised numeracy week run by West Lothian. Initially I was signed up for a sixth-form lecture, but they asked if I'd have a go at Primary 5s, and I ended up doing three sessions to 250 children at a time, which sounds like pandemonium but it was brilliant.

"We played 'what's the next number in the sequence', then we'd a bash at Fibonacci numbers, and once they were warmed up we did magic squares and other puzzles.

"It was all highly interactive, with prizes like T-shirts for the winners.

"The children are really keen at that age. They were all waving their pieces of paper, wanting me to look at them.

"Unfortunately there aren't enough people around doing this sort of thing, so I'd like to think Maths Year 2000 Scotland might unearth some more, because I'm sure there are many maths teachers out there who'd be great at it."

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