Street Maths

Edmund Harriss

How do we widen participation in society, in creation, in the production and consumption of news? Firstly we have to give people the possibility of engaging, modern technology is increasingly doing that. Secondly we have to give them the ability to engage. Here mathematics has an essential role to play. On the basic level mathematics teaches the essential numeracy skills. It goes deeper than that, however, teaching general skills of clear and precise thought. Skills that are essential as wider participation leads to a multitude of sources to filter through, rather than a small number of oracles.

To achieve this we must widen participation in mathematics, take it to the public not just the university elite. The problem is subtly different to other areas of widening participation. There are not so many institutional barriers stopping people from becoming mathematicians, indeed classic examples like Ramanujan show that mathematicians can emerge from anywhere. The problem facing mathematics is cultural. The goal of "street maths" is to change that. It is more of a general philosophy than a specific course. The goal is to get people doing and discovering maths, playing with the subject. Whether it is making pencil sculpture or bamboo stars people react when they see complexity built from simple items. Earlier this year in Iceland I worked with a group of school children at a FabLab to build a mathematical sculpture. We made twenty triangles that could be attached so they hinged at the edge. You can build a lot of shapes with this, so the final model was chosen by the participants from a selection that they had designed. They particpated in their own time, it was not part of their school work. In fact they even asked how they were doing maths. Through building things people hopefully get to see that math is not always boring and also see its simple beauty and power.