A Much Bigger Bang
This year, the Big Bang Science and Engineering Fair moved to the Birmingham NEC at its now customary mid-March slot. As a venue, the NEC is vast, but well suited to the extraordinary event into which the Big Bang has so rapidly evolved. Essentially, there are now only two venues in England that can contain it, and it returns to the other, the London ExCeL, in 2013.
This year, the overall target for visitors had increased ambitiously to 35,000 over three days. Only the last day, a Saturday, was open to the public and this seemed the busiest. The task for Mathematics had grown in a similar fashion: this year, the IMA was asked to organise and provide stand activities for the X Plus Why? Factor to cover 128 m2, an increase of 42% over 2011. The franchise model successfully developed at ExCeL was used again, with much of the area being occupied by other, mostly local providers. However, their brief was the same: to engage the curiosity of the visitors in simple activities that explained mathematical principles or utilised mathematical skills in an unthreatening and enjoyable way that challenged the stereotypical views that unfortunately often adhere to mathematics. I am grateful to all of the activity providers that they succeeded in this aim.
We were fortunate that a number of providers were happy to return to fight another day; Chris Budd CMath FIMA from the University of Bath brought his ‘Living in a Complex World’ activities which demonstrated that apparently simple systems can produce extraordinarily complex and sometimes beautiful outcomes. Thus, the behaviour of a flock of starlings can be simulated with a few simple rules yet the result is living art in the sky. The fact that mathematics can explain this behaviour is, literally, a graphic demonstration of its power. The counterintuitive remained fascinating: the behaviour of powders under sudden compression and the extraordinary behaviour of the double pendulum captured the attention of the curious over three days. Next to Chris, the team from Loughborough and Coventry Universities challenged prejudices on the utility of trigonometry as remarkably young visitors programmed Lego robots to first travel a fixed distance and then follow a complex course. The positive effect of the sense of achievement generated by success should not be underestimated. This activity is also one which can easily be transferred to the classroom at moderate cost.
Ruth Fairclough and her students from Wolverhampton focused on the Mathematics of Gameshows. Is there an underlying rationale to Deal or No Deal? This was a question that stimulated much excited debate while the deceptively simple but subtle Monty Hall problem caused astonishment; not a reaction often encountered in mathematics classes. Ruth was ably assisted by a number of students who, possibly to their surprise, found that they enjoyed the experience of maths outreach; another benefit of participation in the Big Bang.
The largest part of the X Plus Why? Factor by area was occupied by the Liverpool FunMaths Roadshow presented by Sam Reeve. This was a collection of simple activities that stimulated mathematical thinking; problem solving and the application of logic to solve puzzles. Again, these could easily be reproduced in the classroom and would provide teachers with an opportunity to introduce an element of fun into their lessons. This would also develop the essential skills much sought after by employers. It could be argued that this process starts with events like the FunMaths Roadshow.
From QMUL, Peter McOwan and his team bewitched visitors with card tricks, made all the more remarkable since no sleight of hand or baggy sleeved shirts are required. Everything happens in front of the visitor, and everything can be explained. In this regard, playing cards are a fantastic resource and it is to be regretted that progressively fewer students are familiar with the contents of a pack. Although one might hope that this results in a corresponding unfamiliarity with gambling, this is probably naïve and possibly too high a price to pay for the loss of such a rich resource.
Steve Humble FIMA, also known to many as Dr Maths, presented Maths Outside the Classroom. Well known for finding mathematics in the most unlikely places, and therefore continuing the theme of challenging stereotypes, Steve, supported by an IMA Education Grant, brought a larger scale to his mathematics, challenging visitors to solve problems formed from giant cards laid out on the floor.
The Mathematics contribution was not limited to the show floor; Steve Humble, Diane Cochrane FIMA of the University of Wolverhampton, Peter McOwan and Chris Budd also presented workshops in which groups of 60 visitors could get involved. We are also indebted to Sara Santos and her colleagues who conjured a team of Maths Buskers at short notice and entertained the crowds throughout the show floor.
The rest of the X Plus Why? Factor was provided by the IMA staff assisted by students from Warwick and Coventry Universities, without whom we could not have run the event. The Foam Cubes challenge made a welcome return and it was not simply the possibility of winning an iPod shuffle that drew in the visitors, as evidenced by the number of contestants who were so determined to solve the puzzle that they took it home!
The Large and Small Outreach kits (funded by the National HE STEM Programme) were a great success. To see the kit in action visit the IMA YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/IMAmaths. The Harmonograph, first introduced last year, remained a great hit. Perhaps the appeal is to a generation to whom games interaction is almost exclusively via a screen; to see an apparently simple mechanical device generate images of beauty and complexity was almost hypnotic for some. The Aerofoil, my personal favourite, enabled the principles of lift to be explained in simple terms, but could also be developed to inform even the most advanced visitor. Once explained, the demonstrator could then point to aerofoils all around the show…but nowhere else were the mathematical principles being unravelled.
Ultimately, it emerged that over 57,000 visitors came to the NEC over the three days, nearly double the total from last year. The registration problems of the previous year were largely overcome by pre-registration and, at some times of the day, the wave of humanity surging through the doors was almost frightening. With half day registrations, the interest in the X Plus Why? Factor rarely flagged and, at the end of the last day, visitors had to be prised away from the exhibits with a crowbar!
My view is that the success of the event lies in grouping the mathematics exhibits together to explain simple principles in an engaging way that encourages curiosity and challenges intuition. Mathematics cannot compete with the shiny and glamorous exhibits found elsewhere in the show and the stands that comprise the X Plus Why? Factor might look out of place if distributed throughout the floor. However, grouped together, the message does not suffer from distraction; engagement and piqued curiosity succeed in challenging preconceived ideas. Further, simple ideas than can be transferred to the classroom at moderate cost help the Big Bang to achieve its aim of stimulating interest in STEM education.
The first meeting to organise the 2013 show has been held, and this view of mathematics activities has been accepted. The IMA has been asked to put in a bid to provide and organise activities over a four day show at the ExCeL where a target of 65,000 visitors has been set. It seems that the Bang will continue to get Bigger…
Mathematics TODAY JUNE 2012