Maths in full force

30th March 2007 at 01:00
The RAF is helping pupils understand the relevance of arithmetic in the outside world. And, surprise surprise, it's great fun. Susan Young reports.

Corbyn Bishop is answering maths questions, on a laptop, against the clock, with music playing through headphones. And it's not helping his concentration. "Oh, bum," he sighs, as the penalty points tot up on screen, with working partner Todd Richardson looking on sympathetically as he charts his friend's deteriorating performance on a graph.

Corbyn and Todd are among 28 specially selected Year 10s enjoying a maths lesson with a difference at Wildern School in Southampton. To all intents and purposes, they are spending a couple of hours in the RAF, solving a series of problems in pairs and small teams, with just 12 minutes to complete each task.

The two-hour workshop comes as a package from the RAF, complete with two civilian teachers, a uniformed officer and all the equipment needed for each activity, including pens and training logs. The service stresses that it is not a recruitment exercise but intended to "put something back" into schools while alerting teenagers to possible career opportunities.

The seven activities are based on different jobs recruits might find themselves doing, including feeding 100 hungry people, checking that health and safety noise limits are not breached, loading a cargo hold in the most efficient way, identifying friendly aircraft and successfully navigating across hostile terrain.

Different maths skills are on parade for each activity, including algebraic equations to estimate cooking time for a large Christmas pudding, calculating the three different forms of average while measuring decibels for a health and safety hearing assessment, and calculating volume to fill a cargo hold.

Corbyn and Todd started by finding out whether their reaction times are better with sound or silence. At the end of the session, most pupils are cheerfully bouncing around and only direct questioning from Yasmin Karami, the workshop leader, brings it home that they have been using maths skills they had found tricky.

The Year 10s are on their sixth activity of the morning - trying to match the right dose of drugs to the correct patient - and are surprisingly full of beans for an intense maths lesson. "We normally hate maths, but we're enjoying this," says Corbyn, 15. Todd, 14, pulls a face for maths teacher Mary Hart. "I'm knackered, I've done all the work here," he jokes. "Well, you've all worked so hard there will be credits for all of you," she replies with a smile.

Yasmin, a qualified foreign languages teacher who is on her second year with the RAF roadshow, enjoys teaching the material. "It's rare in classrooms to have every pupil on task and involved and interested in what's going on," she says. "But doing this it's rare to find a pupil who is not on task."

She thinks the sessions work well for several reasons: they are practical, the pupils are using their skills in a real-life context; there is variety and chances to move around between activities; they are working in pairs or groups, and the activities use different types of learning.

Yasmin says: "At the end of the workshop, I like them to take away the idea that the maths they are learning in their classroom has some relevance to the jobs they are going to be looking for in the outside world. This workshop puts into practice maths where sometimes they would be asking: 'Why am I doing this?'"

Running two sessions of the RAF workshop with groups from Years 10 and 11 is just one of the activities with outside groups run at Wildern. Maths teacher Mary Hart also enters higher-ability pupils each year as a school team for the Intermediate Maths Challenge, run by the UK Maths Trust - and is delighted that they have made it to the final twice.

"We enrich them and try to do different challenges with pupils. We run after-school clinics and do various activities, especially for boys, and hands-on work with interactive whiteboards," she says.

Mary is also impressed with many of the workshop activities, and in particular one where the pupils measure decibel levels for different sounds using a noise meter, work out the mean, median and mode averages, and then - with time permitting - work out whether ear defenders are necessary.

"That's useful. Lots of times newspapers talk about an average person, but in maths we need to know about three different types," she says.

It's 1.15pm, the end of the session, and Yasmin is coaxing some final thoughts out of the hungry pupils. "What have you been doing?" she asks, and after tentative answers about map reading, challenges, adding and co-ordinates, Emily Gould, 15, says they have been using algebra. What did they enjoy most? Casey Goss, 15, recalling the navigation exercise where the map included several no-go areas, answers: "The one where I died."

"What did you learn from that?" asks Yasmin. Casey grins: "To read the instructions properly."

For free online maths activities and more information visit www.raf.mod.uktarget or call the RAF team at EdComs on 020 7401 4055

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