White-knuckle numbers

28th October 2005 at 01:00
A flurry of enthusiastic activity in long division and multiplication? More a highly calculated risk as a racing classic turns children on to maths. Gerald Haigh reports

Sport is about numbers - times, distances, scores, totals, averages. In some cases - baseball comes to mind - the statistics are a lot more interesting than the game itself. It's not surprising then that maths teachers often use sports statistics to provide a sense of reality in their classroom work. Mostly, though, the figures make up cumulative data of something that's already happened - either a second or two ago ("Love-15")J orJ historically ("In 1927, George Herman 'Babe' Ruth, 'The Sultan of Swat', hit 60 home runs in 154 games.") If you want something more dynamic - where numbers areJcrunched and mathematical decisions made that will decide the outcome - then you have to look at motor racing. The variables are dizzying - individual track characteristics, weather, track temperatures, fuel load, safe cornering speeds are all fed into the mix - and, crucially, a change in one variable affects all the others.

It's that flow of decision-making that makes Cambridgeshire Software House's motor-racing simulation, Cars - Maths in Motion, so attractive to the schools that use it. Val Brooks, deputy director of Stockton-on-Tees City Learning Centre was so enthused by its potential for motivating children who might otherwise be turned off by maths that she started using it a couple of years ago for team competitions between schools associated with the centre. "It's maths with implications," she says. "If they make a mistake they can, and will, crash."

Soon the competition went national, based on other city learning centres around the country and run by Cambridge Software. Now there are regional knockout stages and a national final, sponsored by Jaguar cars and held during the summer at Jaguar's production site at Castle Bromwich on the edge of Birmingham.

This year's final involved 30 schools from all over the UK, each with a team of four children. They gathered in a large room, each team with a PC, and were given the parameters within which they were to set up their cars to race. The initial stages involve a lot of discussion, decisions and paper calculations about speeds, fuel, track conditions, weather - and calculators were not allowed.

The "given" track, for example, is a scale drawing with safe maximum speeds for each corner and each section. But that maximum assumes that the car is at 100 per cent efficiency - a state that, says Val Brooks, isn't actually attainable. "They have to set the car up with 'workshop adjustments', such as gear ratios, suspension settings, engine tunings," she says. "Because each has an effect on the others, you're never going to get 100 per cent efficiency in total or on any single one." The team discussion that's involved here is potentially intense - but it's certainly not "is-isn't!"

futile, centred as it is on a mass of pencil-and-paper calculations. "It increases their understanding of the notion of efficiency, as well as of percentages," says Val Brooks.

A similar deepening of understanding comes from the need to measure, manually with a protractor, the angles of the corners on the track. "They can relate the angles to the amount of turn on a steering wheel - so they realise that an angle is an amount of turn, which is something that children often have difficulty with," Val explains.

Only when all the decisions have been made about the safe maximum speeds that applied to each bit of the track - corners as well as straights - for the given weather conditions and the chosen driver temperament (which ranges from "sedate" through "daring" to "dangerous"), do the teams load the data into the Cars - Maths in Motion software.

On the finals day, all around the room boys and girls were eagerly rediscovering the delights of long division, long multiplication, percentages and the measuring of angles with protractors. The concentration on display was very impressive. As Val Brooks, said, surveying the throng of children: "They're talking maths for six hours, and they think nothing of it, because it's a real application."

Each team's chosen set of data was captured from their individual PCs by the organisers and the teams gathered on the tiered seats of a lecture theatre to see the race run on a big screen.

That said, there's no actual race to see - at least not in the sense of a motor race on TV or in a computer game. What's visible is a list of the entrants moving up the screen, with their positions displayed. Nobody seems to mind, though - everyone concentrates on spotting what's happening to their virtual car, and there's a steady chorus of shouts of support and cries of disappointment.

The race is divided into three age groups - primary, and lower and upper secondary. And just to show that it is truly inclusive, the overall winner this year was a team from Springholme Primary, a 75-pupil school in Dumfries and Galloway.

It's easy to see why teachers like the software. It exercises a huge range of mathematical skills at primary and secondary level, and makes children work together.J"It has improved mental calculations and teamwork," says Lynda Mackie, Springholm's head. "The children would do it every minute of the day if they had the chance."

The whole day is an exciting one for the finalists. Jaguar looks after them well - teachers have a factory tour - there's a good lunch, and the organisation by Jaguar and Cambridgeshire Software House is expertly done.

Now that the competition is open to all schools (previously it was just for specialist schools and those associated with city learning centres) it's sure to attract many more regional entries.

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