Book uses vocabulary of maths to teach


LEARNING TO use maths is not about rote memory, it is much more like becoming fluent in a language, according to a retired Trinity College maths lecturer.

Dr Sara McMurry, who has come up with a novel way to learn and also teach mathematics, says that once you know the vocabulary and structure of the subject, you can start to express yourself.

Dr McMurry launched her book, Mathematics as a Language, Understanding and Using Maths, published by Living Edition with the school of physics, at the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin yesterday evening.

The book arose because Dr McMurry and colleagues in other science disciplines saw that incoming undergraduates were struggling to use any maths learned in secondary school.

“We were finding students coming in to do physics were getting less and less able to cope with the maths,” she said yesterday. “The ability has gone down over the last 10 years or so.”

Students were asked to multiply two powers of a single number together, but they couldn’t. “They didn’t know what a power was. They didn’t seem to have an inkling that maths was there to figure things out.

“It is not that they hadn’t covered it in school and passed it. They learned it by rote. It was a kind of secret recipe given to them but that they couldn’t use. It is all the pressure for points and pressure to pass exams.”

In some cases, the gaps in understanding were startling. They knew for example that the letters x and y could be used to represent unknown numbers, but did not realise that r or t or any letter could do so just as well.

The idea for the book evolved from early efforts to bridge this gap in understanding. She introduced extra tutorials to help students understand and apply maths concepts. She presented problems and then encouraged the students to find solutions by thinking the problems through.

Once she had retired in 2007 she began working on her book.

Frank Turpin, the chairman of the Project Maths initiative, said the book was “wonderfully accessible” and could help not only post-primary and undergraduate students but also their teachers.

Mr Turpin said Project Maths represented a major change in the maths curriculum that attempted to move from rote learning to a deeper understanding of maths.

Its first elements were piloted in 24 schools last year and went on national release in all post- primary schools last September, he added. Two more increments would be piloted before release in 2011 and 2012.

If a water lily growing on a lake doubles in size every day and it completely covers the lake in 14 days, how many days does it take to cover half the lake?

(answer: 13 days)