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‘Innovation in mathematics HE teaching & learning’

I am at the conference Young Researchers in Mathematics 2011 at the University of Warwick and last night I gave the pre-dinner talk on ‘Innovation in mathematics HE teaching & learning’. I recorded this and it is available below.

Here is the abstract:

There are many issues in mathematical sciences HE teaching and learning that, if you are just setting out on an academic career or hoping to, you will need to address during your time as a lecturer. A lively discussion considered mathematics HE teaching and what might be expected from graduates of mathematics degrees. The talk gave developments – recently undertaken or that may be needed – in HE curriculum, drawing on examples from work funded by the Mathematical Sciences HE Curriculum Innovation Project, including from a high level Summit convened in January 2011 to discuss priorities in curriculum development in HE mathematical sciences. Details are given of a £150,000 funding call for curriculum innovation projects in mathematical sciences which is currently open to bids.
Recorded at Young Researchers in Mathematics 2011, 14th March 2011, University of Warwick.
The Mathematical Sciences HE Curriculum Innovation Project is operated by Peter Rowlett, MSOR Network as part of the National HE STEM Programme.

Hidden Science Map

I have added myself to the Hidden Science Map and written a profile. This asked about my education and route into mathematics, a week in my life, what attracted me to what I do, & more. Here is its description of itself:

The Hidden Science Map has been created to show how much science goes on all around us.

The best way of understanding how the map works is to have a play with it. (If you haven’t already.)

The more science, technology, engineering and maths people, and organisations, who put a profile on using our profile questionnaires, the more pins there are to explore, and the more interesting the searches will be.

It’s for school students, parents, and anyone who’s curious about science and its applications to be able to see that ‘science’ goes on all over the place. It’s not just in university laboratories, and it’s being done by all sorts of people, not just ones wearing white coats. (You should be on the map too though, white coated university science people.)

In case you’re wondering, that’s why it’s called ‘Hidden’ Science Map. A lot of science, engineering, technology and maths jobs frankly don’t get the profile they deserve. If someone has trained as a science person but uses the skills in other sorts of jobs, that’s even harder to visualise. The map should serve to bring all this out into the open to inspire the next generation of science people.

It will be around for at least six months from March 2011. This is the pilot phase to see if this type of application is popular both with the science people of the UK, and the map’s visitors.

Types of scientist (or mathematician)

I am interested in a recent paper from the Science Council. This discusses the different roles scientists have in society beyond actually researching cutting edge science. For example, I would feel strange about describing myself as a ‘scientist’ (perhaps in the news media sense of: “Scientists have discovered…”) but when I see the Science Council descriptions of “The Communicator Scientist” and “The Teacher Scientist”, I would happily be described as a “Teacher/Communicator Scientist”. This would mean I am involved in enthusing and training “the next generation” of scientists.

I believe a lot of people graduate mathematics thinking that if what they are doing isn’t at least as hard as third year undergraduate maths then it isn’t ‘real’ maths and, by extension, while they did maths at university, they aren’t now a mathematician. Even when what they are doing for a living is mathematical, it’s just not cutting edge research.

The categories are listed below and full descriptions are given in the Science Council paper “10 types of scientist – science jobs are not all the same“:

  • Explorer
  • Investigator
  • Developer/Translational
  • Service provider/operational
  • Monitor/regulator
  • Entrepreneur
  • Communicator
  • Teacher
  • Business/Marketing
  • Policy maker

My puzzles stall

As I am leaving the IMA (didn’t know? You haven’t been listening to the Math/Maths Podcast!), I am trying to document what I do. I am videoing some bits that might be useful for my successor to see what I do and see if they like it for their own use. In the middle of this, a request came in from Hazel Kendrick, Project Officer for the HE STEM Programme at the IMA, who is looking to develop a small kit of resources for a maths stand at a careers fair or science fair aimed at 11-18 year olds. Although my small kit of puzzles is used at university careers fairs, I thought sharing this might be useful. It is much easier to video myself showing the puzzles than trying to describe each one, so here we go. It’s 12 minutes long, so split over two YouTube videos (below).

My strategy at a careers fair is to provide an experience which is different from the employers. I want to mark the IMA out as different. Sometimes students ask me what jobs the IMA is offering and I have to explain we aren’t a graduate recruiter. I do puzzles because I think they are enticing – and everyone who I entice leaves the stall with a Maths careers flyer and a copy of the IMA Careers Advice Booklet – and to give the students some break out time in what can be an intense process (sometimes hours spent talking to potential employers). I also usually give everyone a copy of the dots puzzle in the second video, in the hope they will find it the next day and have a go at solving it, remembering as they do that the IMA exists. I’ve been complimented several times by organisers of careers fairs for my approach.

Mathematics Today February 2010: University Liaison Officer’s Report

10 ‘rules’ for a successful Careers Fair for mathematicians

So you’re organising a careers fair for mathematics students? Okay, it’s a tall order you’ve set yourself but it can be done! I have attended careers fairs that have worked for mathematics students and those which have not worked as well. I would like to share with you some thoughts about how fairs work, when they work, for mathematics students.

Mathematicians can be difficult to advise. Many, on telling people they are studying mathematics at university, get the reaction “So which do you want to do, accountancy or school teaching?” These options are fine for some but are not for everyone, while mathematics is a subject with an overwhelmingly broad range of options due to the wide ranging employability skills of its graduates. Some students, hearing this stereotype, feel detached and are turned off from seeking formal careers advice. I have had students approach me at careers fairs and say they think they have taken the wrong degree course, since they don’t want to go into teaching or finance! This is a problem as once they have decided what they want to do, the careers service can be very useful indeed: who is hiring, what they are looking for, how to write a good CV and so on. Expert careers staff can usually offer feedback on draft CVs and give mock job interviews for practice. Skills training sessions are usually available. Generally, the careers service can provide a really vital function but one that some students do not seek out. The students are going to get much more out of careers advice once they have an idea what they want to do. To do this, they must be encouraged to explore their possible options and this is where your fair will come in.

The formula for a careers fair usually contains some of the following features: stalls with employers, information on further study, where to get further careers advice and of course a stall from the IMA (my stall recently at Exeter is pictured); talks on skills topics; talks from practicing mathematicians, perhaps recent graduates; talks from employers

Rule 1: Advertise with a united front

As your students may be unexcited at the prospect of a careers fair, it is helpful to present the message that the fair is happening and worth attending from as many directions as possible. A very successful fair I attended at York was advertised jointly by the mathematics department, careers service and undergraduate maths society. Particularly, if lecturers are unenthusiastic about the fair the students will pick up on this and a negative attitude will spread. Conversely, if lecturers are encouraging, the students are likely to react well. Posters in the department are one thing, having lecturers ‘talk up’ the fair in their lectures is another level altogether.

Rule 2: Make it relevant

It is important to make sure the event is relevant to the students. I have attended fairs for multiple subjects and the mathematicians tend not to turn up to these in substantial numbers. At a maths-specific careers fair, the students perceive the advice, employers, etc. are aimed at them specifically and this can be a more attractive draw.

Rule 3: Location, location, location

Silly though it sounds, distance can be a real factor. If students have to leave the areas they normally visit you have already lost a proportion of them. Run the fair in a building they visit often, perhaps where they take lectures. Keep them in their comfort zone, in their home territory. A Careers Fair is a scary prospect, full of scary employers. If you make them comfortable and make it easy for them physically to attend they are much more likely to drop by.

Rule 4: Timing is everything

Plan the fair well in advance, schedule it when the students (at least final years) aren’t busy and if possible put it on the students’ timetable. Don’t let on that attendance is anything but compulsory. I’ve been to fairs where a whole or half day has been scheduled with no lectures to make sure everyone is able to attend, though this is a difficult decision to take.

Rule 5: A small window of opportunity is good

If the fair includes employer stalls, have this within a fairly tight period. I have been to fairs that last all day and the number of students at any one time is low. I have also been to fairs with a tight period – the Calculating Careers fair at Manchester has hundreds of students focussed in just a couple of hours – and this leads to greater numbers in the room at any time. The students are more likely to know others when they arrive – safety in numbers! – and so more likely to stay for longer. Having a busy room and limited time produces an energised environment that benefits everyone. The stallholders will appreciate a more focused time period as well.

Rule 6: Avoid sign-up sheets

It is very tempting to try to get students to put their names on a sign-up sheet for individual sessions or even the whole day. This can help in planning room sizes and I think there is a perception this makes students feel they have made a commitment to attend. In my experience students are not good at making such a formal commitment and, having not signed up, feel they can’t just drop in. Those who do sign up are far from certain to attend.

Rule 7: Get the students involved

A way to create a buzz about your fair among the students is to involve them in the planning. Ask the students what employers they want at the fair. The employers are more likely to attend if you can tell them “our students have asked that I invite you” and the students are more likely to attend if they know the employers they want to talk to are there. If there is a student rep. or a student maths society, get them involved as well. If the students feel some involvement with your fair and start talking about it to other students this is the best advertising of all – peer endorsement. Perhaps the students can plan a social event – cheese and wine, for example – to end the fair, which can help encourage attendance and allow the employers to speak to students in a less formal setting.

Rule 8: Get a good mix of employers

If you are having employers, getting a good mix is crucial. Not everyone you invite will come but try to get a mix of job sectors. Go to the IMA website and look at the Careers Advice leaflet, available via On page 3 of this is a list of job sectors: try to get employers from each sector. In the Professional Affairs section of the website is a list of employers who are Friends of Mathematics (mostly because they employ mathematicians). If you lean heavily towards one kind of employer, you will put some students off. With a good mix of employers there is something for everyone. In rule 7 I suggested asking the students which employers they would like to talk to – this can be a significant factor in encouraging attendance.

Rule 9: Start with a rousing talk

I had an interesting experience earlier this year at a very successful fair at York. I opened the fair with my careers talk. This was an exhilarating experience, the students responded really well and left my talk straight into the hall of employers, enthused and ready to learn more about their career options. I talked about careers options, taking charge and choosing your own path, employability skills, evidencing those skills in a job application and having a professional career development following graduation. Feedback given to me from employers at the fair in York was that the students were enthusiastic (in precisely the way they normally aren’t at such fairs), pragmatic and realistic about what they need to do to get a job. I think this was a good experience all round and it was well worth firing the students up with an opening talk.

Rule 10: Provide practical advice

Students like to meet early career mathematicians. They like to see people who were in their position just a few years ago and find out how they got to where they are now. Particularly if they are graduates from the same university. To be seen as a role model at their former university is good for the professional development of the speaker. The IMA can help here by trying to connect universities to IMA members who are recent graduates. Email me if you are such a recent graduate or if you are organising a fair and would like to find some (

Students also value practical advice which is applicable to job hunting. The careers service can likely help here in running career development workshops. A fair I attended at Portsmouth had a full programme of careers skills sessions and employer talks and the students responded very well. With an awareness that not all students are interested in all the options open to them, this used parallel sessions to make sure there was always something for everyone. If there are mathematics staff who have previously worked in industry they might be able to give good practical advice as well. I saw an excellent CV writing session at Greenwich by a lecturer whose former job included assessing CVs to hire graduate mathematicians.

If you are considering running a maths-specific careers fair and would like to talk to me about this I can be reached on

Activities Nov-Dec 2009

This period I have been busy with visits to give talks at universities. I have given my careers talk at Kent, Durham, Sheffield, Dundee, Stirling, Strathclyde, Glasgow, Brighton, Portsmouth, Exeter and Plymouth. I have given a talk on cryptography at Sheffield, Aberdeen, St. Andrews, Heriot-Watt and Southampton, a talk on puzzles at LSE, Newcastle, Northumbria and Edinburgh and my spin in ball games/Wii talk at York. In the 10 week period (Oct-Dec) of teaching in the autumn term I have given 32 talks and operated 3 careers stalls and so have spoken to over 1100 students and 80 staff at 29 universities.

Also in November 12,600 IMA leaflets were distributed to 71 university maths departments, careers services and student societies. If you work in a university mathematics department I hope you will have seen these around the department. I spoke on my activities to the 11th Younger Mathematicians Conference in Birmingham. In December I had my six monthly meeting with my steering group and annual appraisal. I am pleased to report both went well.

Macro October

Longer term readers of this blog who follow me on Twitter may realise that I have posted considerably fewer posts here since I’ve been ‘micro-blogging’. The podcasts resumed in October, and the show notes posts were regular through the autumn. The non-podcast blog posts in between were less common. Here is a catchup post for October and an attempt at a promise to update more regularly.

The slide began over the summer. Back in September I noticed the Turing apology on Twitter the day after it happened, yet I didn’t get around to posting a blog post for 3 weeks, as “Turing apology“.

I resumed my IMA visits on 7 October 2009 with a trip to UEA, where I recorded podcast episode 47 with Mark Blyth. This event should have given me something to write about but in fact I didn’t get around to posting a blog post about it when the next day I went to NTU and gave my careers talk twice. This meant I had three visits to write about by the time I had been to Liverpool the following week, giving my careers talk at Liverpool John Moores, where I was asked about placements. One student felt that what I was saying about maths graduates having the skills needed by business was wrong because at a recent careers fair she had been told by several employers that all they required was a 2:1 or above and the degree subject didn’t matter. I tried to point out that the job of a recruiter at a careers fair was a marketing one, generally to attract as many applicants as possible. This, I claimed, doesn’t affect your chances of getting the job. And it depends what type of job you are going for.

Following this I met Andrea Donafee, who spoke to me for podcast 48, and to Sebastien Guenneau about his work in invisibility cloaks at the University of Liverpool for podcast 50. At Liverpool, I spoke on careers at lunchtime and on puzzles in the evening. The puzzles talk was organised by Joel Haddley and he had invited an audience of sixth formers without telling me, which was a bit scary! But the talk seemed to go well and I got some positive comments at the end. I was pleased to hear Joel sent off an IMA application form.

By total coincidence, the 42nd week of the year was also the anniversary of the publication of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and the week I released episode 42. The number fact for the episode, of course, referred to the Guide.

The following week, I spoke at and took a stall to a careers fair at Kingston. I spent most of the day giving the IMA’s new Assistant Director the benefit of my views on all aspects of my work, which was quite fun. But something wasn’t right that day with my talk – I don’t know if it was nerves at being watched by the new Assistant Director, but my timings during my careers talk weren’t right and the whole thing felt a little flat.

By sharp contrast, I was much happier with my careers talk performance at Lancaster the following week. From my Twitter post: “Got the audience reactions I hope for: they gasp, they laugh, they consider!” Later that day I gave my cryptography talk to the Maths and Statistics Society (MASS) at Lancaster, which was recently formed with an IMA grant. The next day I travelled into Manchester and spoke at Manchester Metropolitan University. My careers talk went well there and I even overheard a student at the end sounding surprised saying: “I’m actually glad I came”! I attended my second Calculating Careers Fair at Manchester, which was a good experience again. In the evening I went to Bolton and gave my careers talk one more time before heading home. Despite some exhaustion and questions I didn’t know how to answer about further study, I think this went well. One the way home, the worse for a busy couple of days, I wrote my piece for Mathematics Today in December and was worried I might have “gushed” a little. You can read this as “Improving graduate skills through an undergraduate conference” and judge for yourself. The topic of that piece was the Tomorrow’s Mathematicians Today conference, the provisional programme for which has recently been announced. The conference is supported by the IMA and takes place at the University of Greenwich on 6 February 2010. The deadline for registration is Thursday 28 January 2010.

Also in October I was shown a room at the University of Nottingham which offers recording of lectures at the press of a button, a facility I ultimately used to record the lecture I gave on cryptography for the History of maths and x in December.

At the end of the month, I noticed that episode 40 of the podcast had been released on the first anniversary of episode 1 of the podcast – to the day. I will have to try to remember 4 October in future!

This takes us into November, and I will leave that for another post.