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Mathematical Objects: Hairy ball

Mathematical Objects

A conversation about mathematics inspired by a hairy ball. Presented by Katie Steckles and Peter Rowlett.

Hairy ball

Adapting my ‘programming for mathematicians’ module for teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic

When teaching moved online due to COVID-19, we had to quickly work out how to deliver our modules online. The main options used to replace in-person classes were:

  • pre-recorded videos followed by live online tutorials for students to get support while completing exercises;
  • live online classes offering a mixture of lecturer delivery and student activity.

The first option is good for a module with lots of content delivery, such as when learning new mathematical techniques. In modules with some content delivery but a focus on interaction and discussion, such as mathematical modelling, the second is a good choice.

I felt neither was quite right for my second-year programming module. I opted instead for delivering notes and exercises which students could work through when convenient (which might be in a designed class time or might not) and used my time on the module to write responses to student queries and give feedback on programs written as formative work.

In class students tend to say they’ve done an exercise correctly and because you’re walking round a computer room it can be hard to examine their code in detail. Spending time looking at what they submit as ‘correct’ code in greater detail, it became clear that often there are subtle issues which can be usefully discussed in considered feedback.

Overall, I think this semi-asynchronous delivery was much better use of time and I was able to view more code and give better feedback than I would in-person.

I wrote about my experience delivering this module through the pandemic – the end of one academic year and the whole of the next – with Alex Corner in an open-access article which has just been published as ‘Flexible, student-centred remote learning for programming skills development‘.

This is part of a special issue of International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and TechnologyTakeaways from teaching through a global pandemic – practical examples of lasting value in tertiary mathematics education. There are loads of articles with useful reflections and good ideas that emerged from pandemic teaching.

If you are interested in pandemic literature in higher education teaching and learning, I’m aware of two other journal special issues you might like:

Mathematical Objects: Superegg with Hannah Fry

Mathematical Objects

A conversation about mathematics inspired by a superegg. Presented by Katie Steckles and Peter Rowlett, with special guest Hannah Fry.

Superegg, a type of oval-like solid

British Science Week mathematicians poster competition

Maria Gaetana Agnesi by Bianca Milesi Mojon (1836) and 祖冲之铜像.jpg by 三猎.

I wrote a mathematics-themed competition for British Science Week, which is a UK-wide event lasting ten days taking place this month.

The competition calls for individuals or groups to research the life and/or work of a mathematician and produce a poster to share their findings. The six mathematicians available to choose from are:

ICM 2022 will not be held in Russia – it’ll be virtual, and free

In recent days there have been calls for the International Mathematical Union (IMU) to not hold in the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) in Russia in July 2022 due to the developing situation in Ukraine.

This is in addition to previous complaints that Russia is not a safe place to host the ICM, particularly because of its laws affecting LGBTQ+ people.

The IMU announced today that the ICM and associated General Assembly of the IMU will not be held in Russia. Instead, the ICM will be a wholly virtual event – and free to attend. They are seeking an alternative location outside Russia for the General Assembly and prize-giving.

Aperiodical News Roundup – February 2022

Here’s a roundup of mathematical things that have happened in February 2022.


The deeply troubling and developing situation in Ukraine has implications for the 2022 International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) due to take place in St. Petersburg, Russia in July. A group of Ukrainian mathematicians has issued a call for mathematicians to boycott the event. National organisations around the world have been issuing statements setting out their positions, standing down their participation and calling on the International Mathematical Union to not hold the event as planned. Here are some we spotted:

The International Mathematical Union (IMU) itself wrote to its member organisations expressing its deep concern, acknowledging the calls and saying it is assessing the situation.

Other news

The organisers of the Gathering 4 Gardner recreational maths conference have announced that this year’s event, taking place in April, will be a hybrid event with 50% discount for online-only places, making them a snip at $200. Registration is restricted to previous attendees and invitees, but it is possible to nominate yourself or someone else for an invitation.

Casualties of the recent storms in the UK apparently also include Newton’s apple tree – not the actual tree an apple fell on his head from, but scions of the original are planted all over the UK and one of the ones at Cambridge, which was planted in 1954, hasn’t survived the combined effects of Storm Eunice and gravity. More info in this excellent Twitter thread.

The Royal Statistical Society has released a report entitled Behind the numbers: The RSS puts the statistical skills of MPs to the test, in which they report the results of asking an anonymous unspecified group of Labour and Conservative MPs a series of simple stats and probability questions. The survey concluded that while MPs performed better than they did in a similar test ten years ago, their stats skills were still sub-par. It may not be as unambiguous as the research seems to claim though – Rob Eastaway has thoughts about the questions used.


Dr. Matilde Lalín (photo: CMS)

Canadian number theorist Dr. Matilde Lalín is to receive the Krieger-Nelson prize, awarded since 1995 by the Canadian Mathematical Society to recognise outstanding contributions in the area of mathematical research by a female mathematician. (via Jordan Ellenberg)

Maryam's Magic

The winners of the 2022 Mathical book prize, an annual award for fiction and nonfiction books that inspire children of all ages to see maths in the world around them, have been announced. The winners look to include some lovely titles, including Maryam’s Magic – the story of mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani – and the fantastic-sounding Uma Wimple Charts Her House. (via Jordan Ellenberg)

And finally

If you like that kind of thing, you can buy a bunch of cheap maths puzzle book PDFs in a Humble Bundle (via Adam Atkinson). And if you like proof assistants, there’s now a Proof Assistants Stack Exchange.