If you liked maths at school, and particularly if you now work with maths, you will know that maths and mathematicians have an image problem. Most people find it extraordinary that some of us actually enjoy a subject that they fear and dread; they seem to believe that maths was invented solely to torture schoolchildren, and that one of the great things about leaving school is that they never have to think about maths again.

How wrong they are. Anyone who genuinely thinks that they will never need maths again after leaving school will either be sorely disappointed or regularly fleeced. But one aspect of the image problem of maths is that few people realise how ubiquitous maths is bizarrely, it is often thought of as the most useless of subjects.

The ‘party problem’

Of course, actuaries are familiar with a particular refinement of what I call ‘the party problem’. The party problem is when someone asks you at a party what you do, and you have to reply, ‘I am a mathematician’. The most usual responses are, ‘I hated maths at school’ and, ‘What on earth do mathematicians do all day?’. An actuary will, of course, get the same sort of response, but only after clearing up one preliminary point: ‘What is an actuary?’

It is frustrating to face this ignorance, especially when you know your tormentors rely on maths to get to work, make telephone calls, buy food in their supermarkets, arrange their mortgages, life insurance everything, really. Maths is all around us, but blithely saying, ‘Maths is used for and in everything’ doesn’t cut much ice so what can be done?

Confronting the issue

There are really two problems the invisibility of most maths and the bad image of the maths people actually see. It is precisely to confront these two problems that the Millennium Mathematics Project (http://mmp.maths.org) was set up. The MMP is a new national initiative, based in Cambridge, but active in programmes across the UK and internationally. The broad goal of the organisation is to help people of all ages and abilities to share in the excitement of mathematics and understand the enormous range and importance of its applications to science and commerce. It aims to change people’s attitudes to mathematics, to act as a national focus for renewing and improving appreciation of the dynamic importance of mathematics and its applications, and to demonstrate the vital contribution of mathematics to shaping the everyday world.

The MMP runs some projects specifically for schoolchildren and their teachers, some for the general public, and some which fall into both categories.

MOTIVATE (Maths Opportunities Through Internet, Video-conferencing and inTeractive Education)

MOTIVATE is a video-conferencing schools project which brings schoolchildren from disadvantaged areas into direct contact with world-class research mathematical scientists and others who use maths in their careers, enhancing the teaching of mathematics within schools and broadening the horizons of expectation for gifted pupils.

During the video-conferences, mathematicians talk to students about why they chose to study maths and pursue a mathematical career, and then discuss their work. Each speaker sets a number of mathematical problems for the children to work on after the session, and the students report back on their findings in a second video link a few weeks later. All the teaching resources and problems set can be found on the MOTIVATE website (http://nrich.maths.org/MOTIVATE). Volunteers are welcome!

Plus (http://plus.maths.org)

This is a free online magazine for older pupils (1519) and the general public. Plus shows readers something of what professional mathematicians do and explores the wide range of careers open to mathematics graduates. It publishes articles explaining the diverse applications of mathematics, provides stories about new developments in mathematics, and carries interviews with people who use mathematics in their work.

The actuarial profession also pays half the salary of a member of staff of the MMP (the author’s, in fact!) and among the activities this sponsorship supports is the researching and writing of articles on financial mathematics for Plus. Volunteers are welcome.

NRICH (http://nrich.maths.org)

NRICH is an online maths club for children, providing free teaching resources for schools and extracurricular activities for maths clubs, masterclasses, and children at home. The material is designed to take children beyond the confines of school syllabuses, and to help them enjoy problem solving and appreciate the significance of applications of mathematics. There is a dedicated primary education version, soon to be renamed ‘Prime’. Every month a new online issue is published containing mathematics problems, news, games, and interactivities. Mathematical questions from teachers and children are answered by the AskNRICH answering service.

Stimulus

University students visit local primary and secondary schools to help with mathematics, science, and information technology teaching.

Multilingual mathematics context help

This is a collaborative international project developing an intelligent mathematics context help service. The aim of this service will be to provide immediate help with mathematical concepts that students encounter while researching material on the Web. This help will be in the form of definitions, translations, examples, pronunciation, images, and links to related mathematical concepts.

Schools liaison

MMP staff are working with schools around the country, offering support and advice on enriching mathematics teaching, touring schools with our ‘Mathsfest’, which is a hands-on interactive maths exhibition. It consists of a collection of games and materials used to broaden children’s perceptions of mathematics and to give them the feeling that maths is fun and useful. Children are invited to pit their wits against the SOMA Cube, Tower of Hanoi, Levitron, Hoberman Sphere, Tangrams, Aunty’s Teacups, Giant Dominoes, a selection of activities based on codes and puzzles, and lots, lots more.

Maths and art

In November 2000 the MMP was involved in ‘Music

Plus Plus’, where schoolchildren examined the Fitzwilliam Museum’s extensive collection of Persian and Islamic art. Working directly from the artefacts on display, children explored the mathematics of tessellation, repetition, interval, symmetry, balance, rotation, and centrality. The mathematical and cultural concepts arising from this exposure were then translated into musical form. The project culminated in a public musical performance by the Mobius Septet and the children themselves.

Public lectures on popular mathematics

The MMP organises a series of popular lectures (http://

mmp.maths.org/events

/lecturelist.html). These include ‘The mathematics of global warming and diabetes’, ‘Mathematical magic tricks’, and ‘Does nature care about rational numbers?’, among others.

Conferences

The MMP runs its own IMECT (international mathematics enrichment with communication technology) conferences for teachers, researchers, and policymakers. The keynote talks focus on enjoying and sharing mathematical activities, on developing the use of IT for the teaching of mathematics, and on educating mathematically talented students (http://mmp.maths.org/events

/IMECT.html).

Sponsorship

You may be wondering now who pays for all this. Well, the MMP has been fortunate to receive support from various organisations (for a full list of our sponsors visit http://mmp.maths.org/sponsors

/first.html), but to a large extent the MMP runs on goodwill. It is heartening that so many busy professionals want to give something back to the discipline they love.

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