Peter Ransom, President Designate of The Mathematical Association, explores how IT can be used to engage children in mathematics.
More and more teachers are moving away from the idea that mathematics should be taught in short topics in isolation from other subjects. There is a wealth of historical events, technological breakthroughs and subjects that can be linked to mathematics and increasingly IT is a tool to support this cross-curricular approach.
During my 30 years’ teaching experience, I have learnt of new ways to make mathematics more accessible to pupils. Of course there are some students who love mathematics regardless of the lesson format but it is equally important to engage students who have previously had no interest in the subject. A cross-curricular approach that draws on a diversity of subjects and topics is effective in emphasising to a class how mathematics is relevant in daily life and the number of useful applications.
With an increased focus on the STEM initiative, I think it is vital for mathematics teachers to highlight how it links to science, technology and engineering.
One lesson plan that worked well in my GCSE mathematics classes was a presentation on the calculations that were applied by Isambard Kingdom Brunel when designing and constructing the Clifton Suspension Bridge. I showed my pupils copies of his calculations book which included Pythagoras’ theorem examples, simultaneous equations used to calculate distances and even examples of corrections Brunel had made. They found it interesting to see how the GCSE mathematics they were learning had been applied by Brunel hundreds of years earlier.
Brunel’s bridge designs provide perfect material for pupils to exercise a bit of mental geometry. I have found that students have responded well to lessons that enable them to apply mathematics in a practical way, whether it is creating something or using software applications to come up with solutions. Rather than get my classes to inspect a static picture of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, I decided to make it more practical by asking the pupils to investigate the shape of the curve caused by a suspended chain on the bridge. Using a one metre chain and a framework which can be made by cutting a panel out of a cereal box, I would get my GCSE students to suspend the chain from the framework and measure the horizontal and vertical distances from a certain point. The pupils would then input the data into a spreadsheet on TI-inspire CX, which is a hand-held device and software system. From the data, the students were able to use the device to work out the quadratic equation of best fit using either a graph or statistics page. This exercise helps develop students’ measuring, algebraic and IT skills. One of the key advantages of using a hand-held device and software like this is that it provides simultaneous, dynamically linked representations of graphs, equations, data and verbal explanations, meaning that a change in one representation is immediately reflected in the others. This application can really help enhance students’ relational understanding of mathematics in a way that is not possible with a traditional pen and paper approach.
Young people have an increasingly advanced aptitude to using technological applications and harnessing their IT skills in a relevant way can open the door to a much deeper understanding of some tricky mathematical concepts.
Technological devices, software and resources are not there to remove the function of teaching but can act as a supporting tool to enhance lesson plans and pupil engagement in ways that were perhaps not possible a few decades ago.
Peter Ransom works as an education consultant and part-time lecturer at Bath Spa University and is the President Designate of The Mathematical Association. He has 30 years of teaching experience and will be speaking on cross-curricular mathematics at the MA annual conference in April 2013.
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