Article | July 27, 2022
You in the community seemed so impressed with this recent Boston Dynamics–inspired build that we decided to feature another. This time, maker Harry was inspired by Boston Dynamics’ research robot Handle, which stands 6.5 ft tall, travels at 9 mph and jumps 4 feet vertically. Here’s how Harry made his miniature version, MABEL (Multi Axis Balancer Electronically Levelled). MABEL has individually articulated legs to enhance off-road stability, prevent it from tipping, and even make it jump (if you use some really fast servos). Harry is certain that anyone with a 3D printer and a “few bits” can build one.
Article | July 12, 2022
After almost two years of disruption due to the pandemic, our ongoing recovery has highlighted the value of embracing change and working much more flexibly than before, refusing to give up at the first hurdle and a willingness to work together to achieve a common goal. These transferable skills are becoming ever more important for us to thrive in our increasingly automated world, and they are skills that can be developed and embedded through the medium of mathematics.
Fluency, reasoning, and problem-solving are the three foundations of our mathematics curriculum. By valuing them all, we will ensure that our future workforce has the confidence and skills to work together much more effectively to solve problems, overcome hurdles, and sustain our recovery. Let’s begin with fluency. Although AI is becoming increasingly prevalent, benefiting both our social and working lives, we still need number skills, perhaps now more than ever. Too many high-profile technology projects have failed due to basic mathematical errors. We need our education system to nurture the types of number skills needed in industry, especially a much greater focus on using and applying number skills. We must encourage students to develop their confidence in estimating quantities and a willingness to check calculations, even when they’ve used a spreadsheet or calculator.
From NASA’s disintegrating space probes to trains that don’t fit their platforms and submarines that are just too big, the tech world is littered with avoidable, costly mistakes. Acquiring number fluency means developing a ‘feel’ for numbers so that we can easily spot when something is not quite right; the NASA probe disintegrated due to a simple error converting units, the trains would not fit because no-one checked the platform sizes, and the submarines needed refitting due to an error entering spreadsheet error. Each of those three were incredibly costly, totalling millions, if not billions of pounds, but they were all avoidable too. We must nurture a willingness to estimate and develop a ‘feel’ for numbers, known as ‘number sense,’ alongside the more traditional approach of performing more formal calculations when needed. After all, few people head to the shops armed with a pencil, squared paper, and a ruler in readiness to calculate their change at the cash register.
We need to value number sense and rethink our expectations of the primary curriculum.
Encouraging a different approach towards the teaching and learning of mathematics may also help to address the gender imbalance in the subject. If you filled a room with a hundred math professors, the chances are that less than ten would be female. However, female mathematicians have played key roles in the fight against COVID. Mathematical modellers such as Professor Julia Gog, based at the University of Cambridge, drew on her research as an adviser to the government’s SAGE committee.
Nevertheless, even though more students study A-Level mathematics than any other subject, few female students choose to apply to study mathematics at university. My own research with female A-Level candidates reveals their preference for careers which help others and contribute towards a better society.
However, they often do not appreciate how studying mathematics might help them to realise their dreams by helping thousands, if not millions, of others through research on climate change, medicine, and networks.
We know that the gender gap in mathematical performance starts at a young age, and researchers have suggested that the changing expectations in the curriculum as students progress through their schooling might dissuade girls from continuing to study mathematics at a higher level. At primary school, pupils are expected to master written calculations such as long division and long multiplication to achieve ‘age-related expectations.’ However, to progress further, they also need to be able to solve problems, and this seems to be the point where female students lose out.
It has been argued that the switch from being rewarded for learning procedures to solving problems favours boys over girls, and the persistent gender gap in results for higher-achieving primary pupils appears to add weight to that argument. Effort are being made to encourage more females to consider studying mathematics, including the Maths 4 Girls project which organises school visits from female role models and the careers arm of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications which organises poster competitions to encourage more school students to think carefully about studying mathematics, both projects which I support. Yet more needs to be done.
Our curriculum and assessment system are designed to value number sense, estimating and problem-solving skills and perhaps rethink the time schools devote to rehearsing written calculations. Otherwise, we risk overlooking the huge potential of our current female students to contribute and build on the work of their predecessors, including Florence Nightingale, Mary Boole, Ada Lovelace, and Julia Gog, among many others.
To continue our recovery from COVID and rebuild our economy, we must embrace the potential of mathematics for developing and embedding the skills and attitudes that our students will need to thrive in their increasingly automated world: a willingness to "play" with numbers, estimate and check their answers; an enthusiasm for solving problems and working together; and an understanding that it’s OK to get stuck sometimes. We can overcome the hurdles that we face by working together as a team.
Article | October 7, 2022
Jeffrey Lee Funk and Gary Smith
Americans once believed that science was on our side. Radar, microwaves, penicillin, helicopters, magnetrons, and nuclear weapons helped win World War II and fight the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Vaccines for polio, smallpox, tetanus, measles, mumps, and rubella literally wiped out diseases that once killed millions. Televisions, polymers, radial tires, Velcro, vinyl, and freezers made our lives more comfortable. Nuclear power promised us energy too cheap to meter.
We celebrated the space program that sent astronauts walking on the moon and splashing back home again. The annual meetings of the American Association for Advances in Science were regularly covered by the media. New electronic products and medical technologies continued to astonish in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
How things have changed! The last blockbuster technologies were the iPhone and iPad more than ten years ago and they are, at best, indirectly linked to scientific advances. Nanotechnology, superconductors, quantum computers, and fusion still seem far away as do replacements for integrated circuits, silicon solar cells, and lithium-ion batteries.
A week before the 1980 presidential election, President Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan held their only debate—and Reagan sealed the deal by asking Americans, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Nowadays, too many Americans don’t feel better off than they were 10 or even 20 years ago and the elite are tempting targets.
Millions of jobs left the country while economists proclaimed that it was all for the best. Now experts predict that robots and AI will eliminate millions of more jobs—not just blue-collar workers, but accountants, journalists, lawyers, architects, doctors, and nurses. The predictions sound like boasts and make the ruling elite look like the enemy.
Bill Gates tells us to stop eating meat while he flies around the world in his private jet. Politicians tell us to wear face masks while they party in McMansions inside gated communities. Universities say they need more government funding while professors are paid more money for doing less work then most taxpayers. Scientists say they need more largesse while they live among the elite and well-connected.
The rapid development of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines in less than 11 months was an absolutely stunning achievement, done with real science applied to a promising but unproven type of vaccine called messenger RNA (or mRNA). Instead of nationwide celebrations, there was fear and paranoia. Here are some comments in response to a March 2021, CNBC news story on government guidelines for COVID-19 vaccinations:
I still haven’t gotten one, never will and no one is going to tell me what I can and can’t do vaccinated or not!!
Flu shots are proven to make you 38% more likely to catch another respiratory virus like Covid.
Easy way to target the elderly. Don't be fooled people.
Biggest scam in our lifetime.
I won’t vax I won’t mask I won’t follow mandates or guidelines and I’m armed.
Millions believe that 5G is being used to spread COVID-19 (and they have burned down cell towers to stop it) and that COVID vaccines are a nefarious plot (and they refuse to be vaccinated). A recent survey found that 44 percent of Republicans, 24 percent of independents, and 19 percent of Democrats believe that Bill Gates is developing a COVID-19 vaccine that will implant microchips in us so that our movements can be monitored.
Science was supposed to replace superstition and rumours with logic, reason, and empirical evidence. It still can.
How do we collectively resurrect the reputation of science? A starting point is better science education. Memorizing the names of the parts of a cell and then forgetting them after a test is not scientific understanding. Nor is deciphering the periodic table or memorizing trigonometric formulas. Science is fundamentally about being curious—about how things work and why they sometimes don’t work. Richard Feynman’s journey to Nobel laureate began with a boyhood curiosity about how radios work. He tinkered with them, took them apart, and put them back together. He fixed other people’s radios. He loved it.
He later wrote about his life-long curiosity:
When I was in high school, I’d see water running out of a faucet growing narrower, and wonder if I could figure out what determines that curve. I found it was rather easy to do. I didn’t have to do it; it wasn’t important for the future of science; somebody else had already done it. That didn’t make any difference: I’d invent things and play with things for my own entertainment.
Kids don’t have to become Nobel laureates to appreciate how science can satisfy their curiosity. Kids who appreciate science can grow up to respect science and become scientists.
Another part of the problem is that far too many superbly intelligent, voraciously hard-working scientists devote so much of their time to generating the papers and citations that are now required for promotion and funding. Anirban Maitra, a physician and scientific director at MD Anderson Cancer Centre, wryly observed that, “Everyone recognizes it’s a hamster-in-a-wheel situation, and we are all hamsters.”
The public wants to see technologies that improve our lives, not long CVs filled with papers no one reads. We need scientific advances that are useful and affordable.
We also want stable jobs with decent pay. Semiconductor factories once provided good jobs but these were shipped overseas and new ones haven’t been created from new commercialized science-based technologies. Where are the American factories producing products based on nanotechnology, superconductors, fusion, quantum computers and new forms of semiconductors, displays, and solar cells?
American scientists are the best in the world and real science can produce useful innovation and good jobs, but these need to become our priorities.
Jeffrey Funk is a retired Associate Professor, most recently from the National University of Singapore and now an independent technology consultant. He received the NTT DoCoMo Mobile Science Award for lifetime contributions to the social science aspects of mobile communications. His research has been reported in the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.
Gary N. Smith is the Fletcher Jones Professor of Economics at Pomona College. His research on financial markets, statistical reasoning, and data mining often involves stock market anomalies, statistical fallacies, and the misuse of data. He is the author of The AI Delusion, (Oxford, 2018) and co-author (with Jay Cordes) of The 9 Pitfalls of Data Science (Oxford 2019), which won the Association of American Publishers 2020 Prose Award for Popular Science & Popular Mathematics, and The Phantom Pattern Problem (Oxford 2020).
Article | April 28, 2020
EdTech has been at the forefront of a lot of education news recently with so many brilliant resources being made available to schools free-of-charge. But, make sure you look out for the evidence showing the resource’s value. Learn why in dansandhu’s blog. In the wake of coronavirus, the team here at Sparx worked tirelessly to create a maths learning solution that would help schools cope with the enormous challenge of remote teaching. In just six weeks, over 500 schools from 75 countries signed up to our Virtual Classroom. It’s just one example of how quickly schools have implemented technologies to support learning at home. And, importantly, this crisis has proven that it is personal, teacher-led learning that drives student engagement and success.