Given the simultaneous continued increase in higher education tuition fees and the mounting academic pressure on students at secondary schools, it is becoming increasingly important to highlight the different avenues and career options that education can offer. Whilst the study of mathematics remains compulsory in the UK secondary school curriculum, this has recently come under fire by Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins. Whilst I don’t agree with Jenkins’ viewpoint, it does highlight a significant problem with the way that mathematics is regarded by the general public. It is often thought of as a cold, dry subject; one which fails to inspire the creative brain. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Like any scientific discipline, imagination and originality are just as important as rigour and diligence to make progress in mathematics research.
One of the things that we, as academics, can do to address this issue is to take part in outreach activities and, in particular, those targeted at secondary school pupils. This week, alongside my colleague Dr. Ozgur Akman, I have been working with one of the leading lights in shifting the perception of mathematics amongst the younger generation: the Exeter Mathematics School. Each year, this mathematics-focussed sixth form college offers a summer residential, in which year 10 students from schools all over the south west are invited to stay at the school and take part in various activities, including workshops run at the university. During the residential, the students learn about the applications of mathematics at university and beyond, and the different career options that these present.
During our session with the residential students, Dr. Akman and I presented examples of modelling complexity in biological systems. As exemplars, we focussed on simple models of population dynamics and models of cardiac rhythms in individuals fitted with a pacemaker, highlighting how mathematics can be used to calibrate this device. The key points of our workshop were to highlight that complex dynamics can arise from simple models, that these can be understood using straightforward mathematical approaches and that these behaviours are, in some sense, universal across distinct systems, in spite of the vast differences in scale between them. After concluding with some further examples of synchronisation in circadian rhythms, we then fielded questions on what the best choice of A-level subjects were for a career in research in mathematics.
Outreach activities are becoming increasingly important in the life of an academic, and they are one of the most obvious ways that we can give back to the community. Whilst they often demand a significant amount of preparation and require us to think about problems in new ways, they are almost always rewarding and we often learn something new ourselves! To follow up on the work I have been doing this week, I will shortly begin working with the A-level students on tailored projects and will also give an Inspire lecture, presenting my own research to demonstrate how the methods can be extended to analyse the complex rhythms we observe in neural networks.