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Making maths fun for Pi Day

Published: Mar 14, 2022 3 min read

STEM learning

Today is Pi Day, as in March 14th or 3.14 (if you are using the US date format). As we are having fun with numbers, we asked Garry Packer, STEM Ambassador and Lead Service Delivery Manager for National Highways, about making maths fun.

As a STEM Ambassador I was giving talks to Y10 – Y13 students about how we use maths to understand traffic congestion and how slowing cars down made their journeys quicker, counter-intuitive, I know! That’s the magic of quadratic equations, two very different states can have the same value.  I tended to start by asking the class who likes maths?  Being a control systems engineer I have a bit of a passion for applied maths and a colleague describes control engineering as the confluence of maths and engineering. Most of the time I got a very lukewarm response to the question.  I have a theory that (school) maths, unlike other school subjects, focusses too much on method and not enough on being creative.  

At the time I had links to a year 3 class at a Bristol Primary and so agreed to run a maths workshop with a difference.  The focus would be on colouring. We created Sierpinski’s triangle and coloured them in. Along the way we did a lot of measuring, dividing by 2, drawing parallel and vertical lines, spotting symmetry and discussing equilateral triangles.  There’s also the very neat pattern seen if you count the triangles as the fractal grows = 30, 31, 32, 33 … (not that I express it that way with a primary class).  I had some great feedback and over the last 4 years, it has grown into a series of workshops run over several weeks. I’ve delivered face to face and when Covid19 hit, went online.  I try to finish with a look at the patterns created by traffic data so a nice link to how I use maths in my job.

I’m now on a bit of a mission to share my ideas with other Ambassadors and hopefully get more fun maths workshops going.  I also want to try doing them in a maths club format with both children and their parents; I think that will have to wait until Covid restrictions are completely lifted.

So back to the traffic congestion problem. Have you ever wondered why when driving along a perfectly clear (but busy) road, why suddenly everyone comes to a stop?  After a short time, the traffic starts moving again, this may repeat several times and there is no obvious cause (like broken down vehicle or roadworks).  Well to find out why and how quadratic equations help us understand the problem and offer solutions you’ll have to sign your class up to my STEM Ambassador activity on ‘Hidden Maths of Smart Motorways’ talk.