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Mathematics Today August: University Liaison Officer’s Report

Enthusiastic individuals and persistent institutions

Recently, on Twitter no less, I came across the following quote:

“Without individuals, nothing happens; without institutions, nothing survives.”
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord

This quote attracts me for two reasons. Firstly, I recently met a young mathematician interested in meeting others with similar academic interests. When I suggested he might want to join a learned society he told me “oh no, the learned societies are just for old people and I don’t want to be part of anything like that.” I consider this a tragic statement. Without being so specific as to identify him, I will say this person was a dynamic, enthusiastic person and precisely the sort of “individual” able to make things “happen”. It is a real shame he didn’t feel the natural step was to align himself with an established “institution” to ensure the fruits of his enthusiasm “survive”.

I do not know how widespread this viewpoint is but I have had others tell me that membership bodies (in general) are going out of fashion. This is sad: in and of itself, that an organisation which does good might not survive; that the enthusiasm of individuals may not be carried forward and amplified by affiliation with an organisation; and, in the case of the IMA, that membership of a professional organisation might decline at a time when individual professional development is increasingly well valued by employers.

We have to do all we can to rout this viewpoint among young mathematicians. If those with enthusiasm and similar outlook and aims to the IMA don’t feel it is worth joining then there is trouble ahead. This is broadly what I am trying to do as ULO, to improve the chances a student has heard of the IMA and some of the benefits of joining before they graduate. I believe that if they understand the benefits it is a natural choice for many to join. I can’t personally see every graduate and every young mathematician in employment so this is where I ask you as a member to evangelise on behalf of the IMA. This is a valuable organisation for mathematicians to be a part of and it benefits from a strong membership. The IMA Younger Members activities are the envy of representatives I have spoken to from professional bodies in other subjects and attendance at the Younger Mathematicians Conference (next in Birmingham in November) is an excellent first step into IMA activities for a graduate just starting their career in mathematics. There is presumably a barrier in communicating this information to the enthusiastic individual I met and others like him. You might find inspiration for your evangelising in the latter half of my careers talk slides, available through www.ima.org.uk/student

The second reason this quote spoke to me is I have met some extraordinary young mathematicians and mathematics students in my time as ULO. The students with the drive to set up or revive a university student mathematics society at the same time as completing their studies are always pleasing to meet. I have rarely seen an organised collective effort to set up such societies; rather such societies owe a debt to the work of enthusiastic individuals. There is a piece in the Student Section from one such person, Mike Ross of Heriot-Watt University, with his tips for others thinking of setting up a university mathematical society.

Of course, the nature of student life means the enthusiast who set up the society will move on very quickly. Usually first year students are not sufficiently well established to set up or run a society until later in the year and final year students have other issues about which to worry (there are exceptions). I know several individuals who have been the driving force behind student societies who are moving on this year. The problem becomes: how do they ensure the continuity of their work?

The successful model is usually to find a group of younger students who are willing to form an organising committee and take this on – forming a persistent “institution”. Sometimes this works and sometimes the enthusiasm decreases in the following year. A model I have seen work well is to involve a postgraduate student or member of staff in the organisation of the society. As they are generally better established and around for longer they can usually provide continuity and drive that a one year student committee might otherwise lack. Societies who manage this transition well can enjoy years of activities that are to the benefit of the students and the whole department. Such societies often include an element of peer support and community spirit which can help a department with issues such as retention. Departments that act to ensure a healthy society able to capture and build on the enthusiasm of individuals are to be commended.

Of course, funding can be an issue and the IMA can help here. University Liaison Grants are available to university societies to support their activities. If you are interested in supporting your students to set up or revive a mathematical society this is an ideal use of a University Liaison Grant. If there is already a society then a grant may help extend their range of activities. An application form which includes some guidance on the types of activity that this money may be applied for is available through the website at www.ima.org.uk/student

Activities May-June 2009

The post-Easter period is an interesting one. A majority of universities have finished or are finishing teaching and the appetite for a careers talk was reduced. However, the student societies are looking for fun activities to take a break from revision for exams. I gave my talk on spin in ball games followed by playing on the Wii at the Universities of Newcastle and Sheffield.

An exception to the semester-based system is the University of York, who were at the start of the third term. I went to York and gave an evening lecture on puzzles to the Mathsoc and opened the Maths Careers Fair with my careers talk and ran a stall (pictured are students “having a go” after my talk). The attendance for the careers talk was so great people were sitting in the aisle and others had to be turned away so I gave a second sitting of my talk for those students. I received positive feedback on my talk from staff and students. Other stallholders at the Careers Fair told me the students came out of my talk with enthusiasm and with a real pragmatism about what they needed to do, qualities the stallholders felt they didn’t usually see in undergraduates. The maths-specific careers fair format is a valuable one that I think works much more effectively for mathematics students than an untargeted fair.

Puzzles at York

I attended and spoke on my activities at the 10th IMA Younger Mathematicians Conference in Oxford which was, as usual, a useful and enjoyable occasion. I spoke at an event on new technologies for maths promotion to the Maths Promoters Network. I gave an introduction to the day and spoke about use of social networking (mostly Twitter) and gave a podcast live recording demo with Matt Parker (which can be heard in episode 31 via www.travelsinamathematicalworld.co.uk). I was joined to speak on social networking (Facebook) by Noel-Ann Bradshaw of the University of Greenwich and on podcasting by Marianne Freiberger of Plus. Also speaking were Zia Rahman of more maths grads and Richard Browne of MEI who both spoke on online videos and DVDs.

I made a visit to Kingston University to meet careers staff and postgraduates and attended the NUMS EGM at University College London. I ran a stall at a postgraduate conference at the University of Surrey. The University is in Guildford where Alan Turing lived as a child and he is honoured by a bronze statue outside the Austin Pearce Building where the conference took place (pictured).

Alan Turing StatueI had my 6-monthly meeting with my steering group in May and am happy to report this went well.

Puzzling over careers in York

Last week I spent two days in York giving talks. Firstly I gave an evening lecture to the York University Maths Society (YUMS) on Puzzles. I found this highly enjoyable. I think was the first talk I have written that I was looking forward to giving rather than being preoccupied with anxiety on its first outing. I gave a number of puzzles for the audience to work through, talked through a little of the history of puzzles and then we had a session at the end with my collection of puzzles for the audience to play with (pictured below). Following this, YUMS and I retired to the bar for some beer and darts.

Puzzles at YorkThe following morning I went to the maths department (pictured below) for the careers fair. One of the students told me that when I offered to give my careers talk to the department the staff asked the students if they wanted a maths careers talk. The students said they did, and a maths-specific careers fair as well. It is nice to know that I inadvertently started the event! The day was organised jointly by the Careers Service and the Department of Mathematics, and advertised by YUMS as well. I think this combination really helped because the turnout was excellent. I was to give my careers talk to open the day. All the seats were gone and there were people sitting and standing at the back and in the aisles, and they were turning people away! I gave my talk and I think it went well, then we arranged I would give it again for the people who had been turned away. In total my helper for the day, York undergraduate Yi Ding, counted 80 students in the two sittings. As well my stall was hard at work without me; the organisers told me it was one of the most popular stalls even without me attending to it!

The best part of the day for me was when I was speaking to the lady from the TeachFirst stall. She said that usually when she comes to university careers fairs she finds the students naïve about the nature of the jobs market. She told me the students coming out of my talks were clued in and motivated to explore possible careers options. She said they kept telling her about the talk they’d just been in and what I had said about skills and employment prospects. This is brilliant to hear, a huge ego boost.

University of York Department of Mathematics
York Careers Fair poster

Mathematics Today December: University Liaison Officer’s Report

The right lever to move the world

The new academic year has brought a mass of activity and potential opportunities. I am keen to spread the IMA message as widely as possible so thoughts turn to how my activities can be distributed to as many students as possible. So it is that I have begun several new initiatives.
Starting with the October issue, selected articles from Mathematics Today are distributed electronically to student groups with whom I have a contact or other student reps where no such group exists. These contacts will then redistribute the electronic Mathematics Today to students within their universities. This means that, perhaps as you read this, I will be reading through and picking a selection of articles from this copy of Mathematics Today that I think are of interest to students. Students will receive links to PDFs that are active for a limited period. I am also sending each student group a print copy of Mathematics Today for them to display at their events. The intention is that by receiving some of the content from Mathematics Today, students might begin to gain awareness of the IMA and the role it can play in their lives post-graduation. Certainly, we can hope that more students will be exposed to the IMA through this method than could be by my actions in person. And with the quality content in Mathematics Today we can be assured that the exposure will be meaningful as well as wide-reaching. If you would like students at your university to receive Mathematics Today please contact me at peter.rowlett@ima.org.uk.

A second activity I have begun is a podcast, Travels in a Mathematical World, which features mathematicians talking about their work and careers, as well as Maths History features from Noel-Ann Bradshaw of the University of Greenwich and Maths News roundups with Sarah Shepherd of iSquared Magazine. This has been running for a few weeks now and the response I have had so far has been positive with students I have spoken to keen to hear from ‘real life mathematicians’. At a Mathsoc event at the University of Greenwich I was approached by a student who said “I was listening to you this morning.” It took me a moment to realise what she meant! You can listen to episodes and download the podcast at http://www.travelsinamathematicalworld.co.uk/. Any promotion you can provide for this is most welcome.

Thirdly (and I won’t say “finally”!), my relationships with university mathematical societies continue to increase in number. Through a group I am calling Representatives of University Mathematical Societies (RUMS), I am able to keep in touch with students at a wide range of universities through a single contact at each. Universities that do not have such student groups often have a student representative on some staff-student liaison group and sometimes it is possible for this student to act as my point of contact, or simply another keen student. So RUMS membership now includes students from universities without mathematical societies. This group is a huge advantage to my interactions as the task of maintaining a current list of students would be impractical. And there is, I think, a clear advantage to the students themselves in already participating in the mathematical community. If you are in touch with a student group, or know your university doesn’t have one but can think of another student who may be able to help, please get in touch via peter.rowlett@ima.org.uk.

I have set up a new blog for the members of the RUMS group to post news from their activities and share ideas. As I travel I am made aware of the different groups who all have similar goals and are all running into the same issues and this blog is designed for groups to share this experience. Particularly, I meet new student groups and it is good to be able to point them to the blog for inspiration. In the Student Section this time I have collected a few snippets of news from the blog. The blog is available at imarums.blogspot.com.

Activities Sept-Oct 2008

Last time I mentioned a questionnaire that I have distributed to universities through our network of IMA University Representatives and I am glad to say that responses have been coming in through this period. I have a 37% response rate with questionnaires returned from 27 universities.

During September I made several trips to Birmingham. First, I met with the IMA’s new liaison with the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS), Julie Hepburn from the Cardiff University Careers Service. We had a chat about what AGCAS and the IMA can do together. I’ve also visited the more maths grads project, who do some great work in mathematics enrichment at school level. We are exploring ways we can work together in areas we overlap, particularly on careers advice. Lastly, I attended the LMS Popular Lectures 2008 and grabbed 5 minutes with the Co-Chair of the Mathsoc at Birmingham and I am happy to report they are now successful University Liaison Grant applicants.

In October, I visited the University of Leicester and met with the enthusiastic bunch who are the committee for the student group there. Those who enjoy a bit of wordplay will enjoy the name: Student Union Maths Society (SUMS).

Next came my small part in following the New Unified Mathematics Society tour. I visited Newcastle, York, Leeds, Warwick and my home city of Nottingham with the Presidents of the IMA and LMS, David Abrahams and Brian Davies, respectively. It was really useful to go to universities I have not yet had the chance to visit and I have made some useful contacts there. I took the opportunity to catch up with the Mathsoc at Newcastle, who have recently made their second successful University Liaison Grant application and the more maths grads regional base in Leeds.

I visited the University of Greenwich for a talk organised by the MathSoc there on “Thinking Mathematically” by John Mason. Noel-Ann Bradshaw of the University of Greenwich is looking to organise a grouping of London Universities who can look to cross-promote events and I stopped on my way across London to meet the President of the Maths Society at Imperial College.

Finally I rounded off the month in Manchester, where I attended a mathematics specific careers event, “Calculating Careers”. I operated a stall at this with a mixture of careers advice, IMA materials and last but certainly not least a set of puzzles. This did lead to an afternoon of me calling out to passing students:”Fancy playing a game?” but it also led to all those students going home with a “Maths Matters” postcard from the Maths Careers website (http://www.mathscareers.org.uk/) and a copy of the Mathematics Today article Careers for Mathematicians1 under their arms, and hopefully some raised awareness of the IMA. I was told afterwards that my stall had seen the most activity at the fair so there is something to be said for baiting mathematicians with intellectual curiosities!

You can find out more about the University Liaison initiative by visiting the IMA Student page or reading my blog, both via: www.ima.org.uk/student.

References

1. BRIAULT, S., 2008. Careers for Mathematicians. Mathematics Today, 44(3), pp. 117-118.

New Unified Mathematical Society

Over the past two weeks I have hectically followed the Presidents of the IMA and the LMS on a tour of several universities connected to the proposal for the formation of a new mathematical society. I should say my involvement has been nothing compared to the Presidents, who have visits more universities than I, have three more weeks to go and have to actually lead discussions at these universities where I don’t. It is a staggering undertaking for them.

My first trip was last week when I visited the univerisites of Newcastle, York and Leeds. This is a lovely part of the world and the approach to Newcastle by train was stunning despite heavy rain. Below are pictures from Newcastle by night, the mathematics department at Leeds and the Presidents answering questions in York.

Gateshead Millennium Bridge
University of York Department of Mathematics
Presidents answering questions
This week I visited the University of Warwick (pictured below) and attended a seminar by David Abrahams, the President of the IMA, followed by the proposal talk and discussion. Then yesterday I attended my local meeting at the University of Nottingham.

Warwick Mathematical Institute
It is interesting to meet so many members of both organisations and to see some parts of the country which I haven’t previously been to. I have used the opportunity to meet with or get contact details for various university mathematical societies and with more maths grads in Leeds. You can find out more about the proposal at the New Unified Mathematical Society website, as well as some of the questions that have come up on the tour as frequently asked questions.

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