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Good at maths? How innovative projects are aiming to broaden student participation

14 September 2021

3 minutes to read

Good at maths? How innovative projects are aiming to broaden student participation

For many of us, our perceived ability at maths will be influenced by cultural bias – such as the view that maths is predominantly a male field, or an innate talent. These are views that Dr Houry Melkonian, Senior Lecturer in Mathematics at the University of Exeter, is keen to change.

Over the last year, Dr Melkonian has run projects through the Education Incubator that focus on reframing existing beliefs and misconceptions that a degree or career in maths is not within reach.

Dr Melkonian’s first project in this area was inspired by her frequent ambassadorial visits to primary schools. Learning Mathematics through Visual Arts at Primary School Level was designed to capitalise on children’s tendency to enjoy visual representations of abstract concepts by using mediums such as art to enhance their ability to think and communicate mathematically.

You can read more about that project here where project assistant Amber Ellis, an M.Sci student in Mathematical Sciences, talks about her experience in researching the education of mathematics with art, and how art gives children the chance to get creative, hands-on and messy while exploring maths concepts in shapes and colours.

Influencing statistics: Florence Nightingale

Recently Dr Melkonian has collaborated with Dr Tom Ritchie (Project Manager for Education Incubator and a Historian of Science, Mathematics and Computing) to launch a competition for Exeter students about Notable Women in Mathematics. The aim was to promote students’ curiosity and appreciation of the historical development of the subject. By learning and writing about the involvement of women in the study of mathematics, the project challenged out of date stereotypes and celebrated diversity.

The competition was open to all Exeter students, inviting students to submit stories of notable women mathematicians and thinkers and to acknowledge their contributions. In response, students from both the History and Mathematics departments designed a range of interesting submissions.

Each of the four student winners – Amber Ellis, Sophia Jaffer, Anila Navaratnam and Sophie Peel – received a commendation letter from Professor Rob Freathy, Academic Dean for Students, for their efforts in finding and telling the stories of outstanding women in the field of mathematics. Joining forces with the European Women in Mathematics – The Netherlands (EWM-NL) association, those entries are now displayed at the EWM-NL website.

The team in Exeter aims to expand this activity beyond Exeter, envisaging collaborative society involvement as well as from other universities aiming to promote a community-engaged academic practice which fosters collectively working towards a more diverse, inclusive and accessible higher education.

The winning entries of the 2021 Exeter Competition will contribute to the design of a joint poster featuring biographies of women in mathematics whose exceptional stories have inspired generations of mathematics lovers. The poster will be presented and displayed at national and international meetings and at various research and educational institutes and relevant websites.

The poster design is led by a team comprising:

Silvy Hendriks (Mathematics Teacher – The Netherlands);

Dr Houry Melkonian (University of Exeter – Mathematics; European Women of Mathematics (EWM) Country Coordinator – UK);

Dr Tom Ritchie (Historian of Science, Mathematics and Computing; Project Manager for Exeter Education Incubator – UK);

Prof. dr. Maria Vlasiou (University of Twente and Eindhoven University of Technology, President EWM – The Netherlands).


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Dr Houry MelkonianDr Tom Ritchie
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