In 2017, the University of Bath hosted the first Talking Maths in Public conference, a gathering for UK maths communicators. As part of the event, attendance bursaries were awarded to students interested in maths outreach, and the recipients of the bursaries wrote about their experiences. To celebrate the fact that a second TMiP conference will be happening this year (booking is open now, and we’re all going to be there!), we’re sharing their report of TMiP 2017. You can find out more about this year’s event (which also includes a bursary scheme) at talkingmathsinpublic.uk.
This post was jointly written by Imogen Morris, (University of Edinburgh), David Nkansah (University of Glasgow) and Olivia Sorto (University of Edinburgh).
Attending the Talking Maths in Public conference, a conference for people who work, study or participate in mathematics, was an enriching and irreplaceable opportunity. The three-day conference was filled with social events, engaging presentations, and intercultural discussions.
Many would probably think the social side of a maths based event would be composed of a gathering of socially awkward number-lovers who solved their first Rubik Cube at the age of nine, discussing intricate sums behind dishevelled hair. Although the love for numbers was probably shared by many, more importantly, we all shared a love for maths outreach. Along with former teachers and PhD students, we had comedians, jugglers, and other assorted people who just have an admiration and enjoy mathematics in attendance.
Attending the conference allowed everyone to learn and develop. But, the development did not restrict itself to within the grounds of the university. We began by all meeting in The Bath Brew House where any misinformed preconceptions about what a group of mathematicians would look like were discredited and discarded. A crowd of bubbly, happy folks welcomed you as you walked in. Within moments of everyone meeting, the scene became a hive of like-minded individuals, diverse in background and varied in age. This was truly a perfect occasion to talk about who we all were and what interested us in maths outreach, and unsurprisingly, circulate fun mind-stimulating puzzles. Any time someone had a paper to write on and a pen in their hand, or in some cases even a deck of cards, the opportunity for discovery presented itself. We were surrounded on all sides by one of the true joys of mathematics – community and teamwork.
There were opportunities for all delegates to bring their ideas forward, in particular at the discussion sessions. Six topics were discussed, ranging from tips and tricks for effective outreach, such as presentation hacks and using digital media for outreach; to ethical issues, such as diversity; through to practical ideas for expanding outreach including at science festivals, primary-school level and in education in general.
A difficult issue discussed at the diversity discussion was ‘girls only’ events. One delegate gave two contrasting examples: there had been a class named ‘Robotics’ given at her university which was very popular, however, they could not get many females to sign up. One year, they changed the name of the class to ‘Robotics for Girls’, without making any change to the curriculum. As usual, the places filled up fast, but this time almost exclusively with female attendees. On the other hand, her daughter had once been given a book entitled ‘Math for Girls’ and had felt very insulted by this. We were not able to come to a conclusion on this issue, but one good suggestion was that even if it was necessary to advertise an event as ‘girls only’, the event itself should not be affected by stereotypes.
At the outreach at festivals discussion, it was remarked that although maths underlies all subjects, this is not sufficiently well advertised. For example, if young people realised that, at the research level, biology is mainly statistics, this might inspire them to take an interest in studying mathematics. One response to this problem was to have events themed around solving real-life problems, such as eradicating a disease, but using mathematics. The questions and suggestions raised at the discussion sessions helped to set the optimistic and creative atmosphere of the conference.
Delegates were invited to give five-minute presentations on their own outreach projects, which were delivered in succession over an hour and a half period. Although short and strictly timed, the window of time was enough for the enormous creativity of projects to shine through. As the presentations progressed, it became clear that not only the extent but also the breadth of outreach activities among delegates was huge.
One attendee had flown in from the distant yonder of New York for the conference and spoke about her involvement in the National Museum of Mathematics, a one-of-a-kind institution in the U.S. devoted to displaying and illustrating the beauty and curiosity of mathematics. Photos of the museum’s fascinating exhibits were shown and included a striking, ridable square-wheeled tricycle. Other projects were smaller and more individual. For instance, one participant shared his experiences of giving mathematical talks at largely member-run science fiction conventions. Another delegate spoke of mathematical knitting endeavours. Fusing arts, crafts, and mathematics, she had run workshops teaching people how to knit mathematical objects, including knots and hyperbolic surfaces.
As the presentations rolled forward, participants advertised for help, collaboration, and inspiration from other conference-goers; as contact details and informative flyers flowed, the room was filled with the air of a community that is not only creative but also close-knit and synergetic.