For the last two years I have been the Creative Director of the ‘Maths in the City’ project. At the helm was Marcus du Sautoy, that maths guy from the TV and Radio who also happens to be a member of my Continuing Education department here at Oxford and the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. The idea for the project came from discussions Marcus had with secondary schools in London. The overall aim being to ‘engage’ the public with maths by demonstrating how the science of numbers is integral to the urban environments most of us inhabit. The 2 minute video below gives a flavour of what it’s all about.
Funded by the EPSRC (who fielded an excellent and experienced mentor for the project) via a public engagement grant the project ran a series of walking tours around Oxford and London which anyone could attend for free. The tours were highly interactive (string, chalk, sweets, springs, sticks, marbles etc.) and designed to interest people of all ages with potentially a very basic understanding of maths. The guides for the tours were all maths students drawn from Marcus’ cabal here at the university called M3. An important aspect of the project was giving these students the opportunity to practice their public speaking skills at the sharp end of maths-communication i.e. in a street with a group of strangers that have random levels of subject understanding. To support and promote the tours we built a nifty website. Nifty because it allows anyone in the world to create a maths ‘site’ and, if they so desire, a tour of their own. The M3 group used the site to help author our main tours of Oxford and London. It also gave us an opportunity to run a competition to increase the visibility of the project and to help populate the website with maths from around the world.
The officially funded part of the project is coming to a close but I’m happy to say that the M3 group will continue to run and develop the tours. Overall the project was a great success:
- over 2500 people engaging with us via social media
- over 460 people attended mathematical walking tours of Oxford and London
- over 130 examples of ‘maths in the city’, from around the world, posted on www.mathsinthecity.com, the vast majority from members of the general public.
Having a world renown mathematician and broadcaster as a figurehead certainly helped promote Maths in the City but the project team who were all assigned 1.5 days a week or less were the real behind-the-scenes workers: designing the details of the tours, putting together the website, encouraging an online community, training the tour-guide students and generally dealing with all the nuts-and-bolts involved in running public walking tours. What I am most proud of is that we designed multiple ways to engage with the project, for example:
- To promote the project and to give it a ‘friendly’ face (we don’t underestimate how daunting contributing to an Oxford University project might be for some) we provided cut-out-and-keep template of our logo/mascot ‘Maths Dave’. Much to our delight people began to submit photos of their very own versions of Maths Dave.
- People could submit a mathematical site from their city. These ranged from elementary maths such as this site on triangles (one of our competition winners) through to sites such as the ‘Squeaking Labyrinth’ (which is certainly beyond me) and everything in between.
- The tour ‘sites’ were essentially neat chunks of teaching material (all openly licensed as ‘Open Educational Resources’) which all included great hands-on activities. The project used the tour sites to give ‘stationary’ walking tours or ‘talks’ as they are normally known as part of public lecture series i.e. you don’t have to take the walk to get the maths. One of the most widely appropriated was the Sheldonian Roof site which inspired a whole morning of teaching at one secondary school culminating in this spectacular model.
- If balancing a ridiculous amount of rulers across desks is not for you then there was always the geeky banter to enjoy over on our Twitter stream and Facebook page or the opportunity to read about the project in one of our many write-ups including the New Scientist.
- The hub of the project’s activity was of course the physical tours themselves. I went on a few to check everything was running smoothly and remember a six year old and his older brother happily helping to make triangles, rectangles and hexagons with a loop of string in one of the quads of St. Johns college while the adults discussed the shapes which most efficiently tessellate on a two dimensional plane.
Engaging the public both online and offline is a delicate business especially when your tour-guide group is made-up of volunteers new to public speaking, trying to complete Oxford degrees and acting as the public face to an institution which has very refined views on ‘reputation’ and ‘credibility’. Instead of writing a dusty report on the project which would end its days in unread pdf purgatory on the outskirts of a funding council website we have chosen to write a series of blog post which discuss our approaches to public engagement on the topics of; teaching/public delivery of complex material, what makes the public participate in public engagement initiatives, community facilitation/the use of social media and the management/encouragement of volunteers. Watch @daveowhite or @mathsinthecity as we release the posts over the next few weeks. I hope they will be insightful for those of you considering public engagement projects.