Making Maths Count

Gingerbread, weather and cricket – it’s all in the maths!

February 16, 2016 by No Comments | Category Weather

A gingerbread Coliseum, the weather and cricket. What’s the link? As Heather Reid, former BBC Scotland weather forecaster and a member of our Making Maths Count group explains, it’s maths.

I’ve always liked maths and working with numbers. I think I made the link between maths and science fairly early on and found it so exciting that you could describe physical phenomenon using maths. For example you could hit a ball with a bat and see the visible result, but to be able to describe it with numbers and mass was, I thought, pretty cool.

In fact sport is a fantastic context for maths. Both my parents taught PE and my dad played a lot of cricket. I was the scorer, so there’s a lot of numbers there, but mathematical thinking is also crucial to analysing how the ball moves through the air when you’re bowling. It was the thinking about things mathematically that my dad enjoyed and the outdoor links. I also did a lot of baking with my mum and granny. Not Great British Bake Off standard, but it’s still a great way to introduce concepts like measurement and ratios.

From an early age my dad encouraged me to do maths and science as he believed it opens lots of doors. And he was right. After studying atmospheric physics I went to work for the Met Office, originally doing satellite image processing before I got moved into forecasting, which I really enjoyed.

Presenting the weather

You can’t underestimate how much maths goes into forecasting the weather. Supercomputers and mathematical models allow us to simulate and predict how the atmosphere will move. The power of these computers is growing all the time so we can now run equations for a huge number of points in the atmosphere to get ever more accurate results.

But nothing’s perfect and we try as weather forecasters to be aware of the weaknesses of the computing model. For example sometimes the topography in mountains makes it difficult to predict, or we know that the computer overdoes rain when there’s a warm front. We try to take these things into account when we’re giving our forecasts.

Working with schools

At the moment I do a lot of work to support the teaching of science in schools. I see a tremendous willingness in the younger years in Primary to explore maths as a way of solving problems across the curriculum. Then it’s almost like a bit of trepidation creeps in with slightly older kids. Perhaps they don’t feel like they can recite their times tables as fast as others. It’s important that we teach children about how maths is used in the real world so they understand it’s not about being the fastest at doing the calculations; it’s about knowing the right sum to do in the right situation.

As a mum myself I’m interested to find out through the Making Maths Count project how parents feel about maths and supporting their children. Given the impact my dad’s encouragement had on me I think it’s important parents are supportive. Some parents will say that maths isn’t taught how it was when they were at school, and that things have changed. That’s partly true but ultimately it’s just the way processes are written down that’s different and some of the terminology – not the underlying maths. I’ve changed the way I do maths from when I was in school and I think it’s good to embrace this as it hugely benefits the next generation.

Not just for maths lessons

Even if you’re not confident in your maths skills, it’s important to still encourage your children. I don’t believe anyone lacks the ability to do maths. And it can be fun. Maths isn’t just for maths lessons. My daughter did a topic on the Romans when she was in P4 and had a homework task to make a model of a Roman building. We decided on a gingerbread Coliseum. It was a huge hit but it was quite an undertaking and there was a lot of maths to do to get all triangular pieces fitting together properly.

Heather’s gingerbread Coliseum – standing up thanks to maths!

I really hope that through the Making Maths Count initiative we can raise awareness amongst young people about how important maths is. From everyday situations like interpreting your energy bills to making informed decisions about climate change. The big ethical questions facing us locally and globally will have a significant maths element which I hope people will be able to embrace to benefit themselves and others.

To help us understand how people feel about maths and use maths in their lives, we’ve got a short questionnaire which we want people to fill out. This will help ensure that whatever recommendations the group makes are based on the views of people across Scotland. So do let us know what you think.

Heather Reid is a meteorologist and science education consultant.