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Rewriting the maths story

Man looking at wooden model of the Leonardo Bridge

Mathematics underpins everything from information technology, product design and scientific discovery to our financial system. Maths skills also have a massive impact on our career and life prospects. But many people still see the subject as boring, difficult and pointless. OU researchers are rewriting the maths story, making it fun and accessible for everyone and tackling inequalities.

The UK’s cultural aversion to maths is holding us back. Government figures suggest Britain has one of the lowest numbers of people studying mathematics beyond 16 of any developed nation. According to one analysis by professional services firm KPMG, the maths skills gap costs the UK economy £765 million annually. Statistics also show that people who lack numeracy skills have fewer job prospects and a higher risk of developing physical and mental health issues.

“My Dad gave me a book ‘Mathematics and the Imagination’ when I was 13, as well as introducing me to Hilbert’s infinite hotel which has room even when its full, and I was hooked. But not everyone is so lucky. It’s ridiculous that we still see Maths as irrelevant when it’s the gateway to all STEM careers, and numeracy skills are proven to improve your life prospects,” says Dr Katie Chicot, Senior Lecturer and Staff Tutor in Mathematics and Statistics. “We need to kill off these unhelpful perceptions that maths is boring, difficult and pointless by finding fun new ways to build peoples’ confidence, skills and interest using it.”

Dr Chicot and colleagues want to build the UK’s first National Mathematics Discovery Centre to challenge the public’s negative perceptions of maths by engaging children and adults in the subject through interactive play-based learning.

“Most UK cities have a science discovery centre, and we have museums for almost everything, but we don’t have a museum of maths. Compare that with Germany, which has 13 maths discovery centres, and you can start to understand the UK’s relationship to the subject,” Dr Chicot explains. “We want to create an exciting centre where people of all ages can physically touch and interact with maths in a compelling way.”

With support from the OU’s Open Societal Challenges programme, Dr Chicot and colleagues are working with policymakers, charities and philanthropists on plans for a 5,000 m2 centre in Leeds. In the meantime, they are testing the concept with a permanent exhibition in an unused retail space in one of the city’s shopping centres. Since October 2022, more than 25,000 people have visited MathCity’s 40 interactive exhibits, which range from a giant bubble people climb inside to learn about minimal surface areas to the Towers of Hanoi game, which teaches players about logic and algorithms.

“Imagine you were to learn grammar and punctuation without ever seeing a book. You’d know the components but never have seen how much fun they can be when you put them together. That’s how we’ve traditionally presented maths in the UK,” Dr Chicot says. “With MathsCity, we’re rewriting the maths story through intriguing exhibits people enjoy interacting with.”

The exhibition’s success demonstrates the enormous potential to roll out interactive maths learning through play on a broader scale. “The feedback from Maths City visitors has been excellent, with the majority saying they now enjoy maths and some even wanting to study the subject at university. We’ve reached underrepresented groups, watched the young teach older people and seen people gathering to solve a shared problem,” Dr Chicot explains. “You don’t get that collaboration in maths class. Imagine how many ideas we could generate if we made maths more engaging and collaborative from day one.”

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