Nautical numbers

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
A real historical context can add to the excitement of problem-solving. Peter Ransom reports

On Trafalgar Day last year (October 21), I turned up at the Mountbatten School in Romsey dressed as a seaman from 1805, to teach my pupils about how maths helped the mariners of that period. This work has been extended from a one-hour lesson to Royal Institution Mathematics Masterclasses of two-and-a-half hours for Year 9 and Year 5 pupils, and has been adapted for undergraduates and teachers of maths. The materials have been expanded for use in key stages 2 and 3 by Madeleine Shiers, an undergraduate at University College, Winchester, and Mountbatten's Jo Lees, one of Hampshire's leading maths teachers.

Madeleine is enthusiastic: "This has really helped me see how cross-curricular materials can put life into maths and how work between the key stages can help the transition from primary to secondary. It appeals to kinaesthetic learners because there are many things to make and move around. Auditory learners receive plenty of verbal instruction, and the sea shanties engage pupils who like singing. It is also very visual with the pictures of HMS Victory and flags."

At the Westgate School, Winchester, head of maths Deb Sutch, who organised the masterclass, says: "This was a marvellous experience for everyone. We learnt about the battle of Trafalgar, we could touch cannon balls from the time, and we used algebra to find formulas for calculating the numbers of different kinds of shot piled into pyramids.

"Then we saw the damage a 24-pounder shot could do to a plank of wood. We used data-handling skills to compare the fleets and worked out the probability of winning at Crown and Anchor, a popular dice game of the time. We tasted ship's biscuits and passed round coins of the period, and also did some relevant calculations with the money. This is our second year hosting the masterclasses and we hope a sponsor will help fund them in the future."

Dr Katie Chicot, Clothworkers' Fellow in maths at the Royal Institution, adds: "The masterclasses are designed to introduce students to aspects of maths outside of the curriculum, and to develop reasoning and problem-solving skills through the excitement of mathematical investigation. Their perception of maths is changed as they see its creative aspect in real-world problem-solving. The classes take place all over the country and involve local educators. Westgate came into the scheme last year and has had a great variety of sessions."

As well as working with cannon balls and dice, participants use card to model a pair of parallel rulers (a wooden device used in the 18th century with sea charts to calculate the ship's bearings). The resulting instruments are remarkably accurate, with pupils being able to find a position on a chart to within one degree.

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