Scientists in Schools

Solving real-world problems

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  • Jan Bentley, Dickson College, Canberra, ACT
  • Dr Steven Barry, National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, Australian National University

Senior students at Dickson College are being introduced to the tools of applied mathematicians to solve real-world problems during a five-week series of activities with Steven Barry from the Australian National University.

Steven drew upon his background in applied mathematics to develop an interesting scenario for the students to investigate so that they could experience how mathematicians explore real-life practical problems, seek out relevant strategies and communicate their conclusions.

Dr Steven Barry assisting students with Scilab

Screenshots of Scilab solution

Steven gave the students a real problem that he had encountered in his working life and which could be solved using their existing mathematical knowledge. They then attempted to solve this problem using the primary tool of an applied mathematician, mathematical software, on an ordinary computer. “It’s important for students to realise that there are powerful and easy to use mathematical tools they can do useful things with,” explained Steven.
Students used a freely available open source computer program called Scilab, which is equivalent to the professional program Steven uses in his own work. They wrote simple computer code in the Scilab language to solve the real-world problem they had been given. While the Year 12 students enjoyed the experience, they found the ambitious project very challenging because they were learning to use the program as well as analysing the problem. One student commented that “it was interesting having a professional give us some knowledge in areas we would not usually learn in our normal curriculum.”  Another student said the program was “very interesting as we were able to apply our ‘pencil pushing’ knowledge into a realistic application that seemed more relevant than Diophantine equations!”

Jan organised for Steven to work directly with two other staff members teaching Year 12 mathematics, Kathryn Trenholme and Rob Emanuel. They said that working with Steven has been a great experience, nicer than having someone just visit for a day and that the students think it’s great working with a professional mathematician.

What motivates Steven to volunteer his time in the school? “I enjoy seeing the students learn really new material, stuff that they’ve never been exposed to before. It’s just as exciting to introduce them to real applications of the maths they have already learnt.”