Scientists in Schools

Modelling the wonder of maths

  • Laura Quigley, Benton Junior College, Victoria
  • Magnus Moglia, CSIRO Land and Water

It's often difficult pushing past the rules and equations of mathematics to see how numbers can help us better understand the world around us. But Magnus has done just this with the year four students at Benton Junior College by downloading computer simulations onto his laptop and engaging with the kids in exploring the dynamics of different systems.

Whether it's describing the flocking patterns of birds, modelling the spread of bushfires or studying the flow of traffic through a city, computer simulations play a central role in our understanding of how the world works.

Magnus explained to the students, for example, that the beautiful dance of birds in flight can be explained using some relatively simple rules - stay close to one another, but not too close, and try to go in the same direction as those around you.

Traffic congestion is related directly to how quickly people brake and accelerate. And the spread of a forest fire depends heavily on the precise density of tree growth. By changing the parameters on the computer simulations, students noticed that small differences can have significant consequences.

Too many students see maths as difficult and complicated. Magnus has worked hard showing students that there is nothing to fear in maths and science, but a whole lot to gain. His inspiration has been rewarded by students' questions that demonstrate their understanding.

Magnus used the resources at NetLogo for this partnership. If you would like to see it in more detail, you can download the software from this website and see the simulations in the model library.