Making Maths Count

Maths. It’s time we appreciated it

May 24, 2016 by No Comments | Category Games

Technology expert Chris van der Kuyl, the developer behind Minecraft Xbox 360, the fastest selling Xbox Live game in history, believes everyone can – and must – get to grip with numbers.

To me, maths is something fundamental to everyday life – but I don’t think people have enough of an appreciation of it.

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t use maths in daily life. Often, you are not thinking about it. But when you have that understanding of it, you can step back and think about whether there’s a better way to do something – a more efficient way.

Image of Chris van der Kuyl

Chris van der Kuyl says maths skills are number one in his field

In my world, there’s no life of a software engineer or artist in computer games without maths. It’s the number one skill over everything. Maths first, physics second and then understanding technology comes a distant third. If you don’t have the fundamental maths knowledge then you can’t programme a computer.

A maths engine

I have a constant stream of kids coming to me saying they want to get into this field. I say “you do realise that means you need to get as far in maths as you can”. Dealing with 3D graphics is nothing other than maths. Take away the fancy lights on a computer game and it’s just a maths engine behind it. It makes a lot of them realise they can’t avoid it.

I feel I’m one of the lucky ones. I always found maths quite interesting and could see the applications from it at a pretty early age in programming and graphics.

Fundamental building block

I started programming computers when I was about nine years old. Back then, especially, you really had to have a good grasp of maths to be able to programme. It’s different in many ways now but in many ways it’s not. Maths is still the fundamental building block of everything within technology.

Binary maths is the foundation of every computer ever built. People glaze over and say, “I couldn’t possibly understand that”. But the binary system is the easiest thing in the world as it’s either 0 or 1. If you can understand how to count with ten numbers you can count with two.

Understanding the applications
Image of a Minecraft version of the Forth Road Bridge

Minecraft allows young people to create all kinds of designs

Conceptually, some areas of maths are a bit tricky and not normal, but as soon as you understand how to apply it the fog begins to clear. To me that’s one of the big problems with how I see maths taught. But I’m sure that’s changing. Give young people a practical reason to solve a maths problem and they’ll solve it.

Take Minecraft for example. You can use that to teach the fundamentals of maths. Kids absorb it instantly. We’re seeing six, seven, eight-year-olds building incredibly complex geometric patterns.

It’s complete nonsense that some people just aren’t able to do maths. It’s fair to say there are some incredibly complex forms of maths, as with literature, that are very deep. 99% of the population doesn’t need to be able to delve into Fermat’s Last Theorem.

But that really hard ‘Beautiful Mind’ type stuff isn’t maths in its entirety. That’s one bit of very niche maths. On the journey to that there’s a whole world of maths with thousands of applications which are very accessible.

Developing a deeper understanding

There are challenges there. I don’t think people have enough time on the basic understanding. People, in my view, who were taught abstract concepts and couldn’t get their head around it just didn’t move on. That, in many ways, is the problem for the maths world.

If people do have a slightly deeper understanding it becomes really easy to learn new things and adapt to new systems and processes. I think that’s the difference between someone implementing something and someone really understanding something.

You need five, six and seven-year-olds to get excited about maths, but a lot of primary teachers possibly don’t have maths at the top of their agenda.

Curriculum for Excellence is a step forward but I think we can still do better. I still think there’s not enough of a focus on taking maths in to other subject areas, because that’s where it becomes real.

For example, in code-breaking you can combine maths with literacy, looking at formulas in words and word patterns. Art is another obvious one – it’s full of maths, such as the rule of thirds. Bring that out and that big cohort of brilliant visual people who said they couldn’t do maths suddenly can. And music, one of my passions, is all about mathematical patterns. Even down to the level where you look at the maths that governs the frequencies we hear. It’s a fantastic tool to teach maths.

Role of business

Business has a huge part to play in engaging with education. We need to see sponsors from industry saying this is what maths means to us every day of the week. After all, if people are leaving education to enter the workplace and don’t have the skills we need, that’s a problem. I’ve had pretty serious conversations with universities to say, unless you go to this level of maths there’s no way we’d even interview people. I’ve been pretty successful with that so far but we need to keep on top of it.

Chris van der Kuyl is Chair of 4J Studios in Dundee and Visiting Professor of Digital Entertainment at University of Abertay Dundee.

A shortened version of this article appeared the The Herald’s Agenda column on Monday 23 May.

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