A group of intrepid fifteen-year-olds recently visited the University’s Centre for Mathematical Sciences as part of a high-octane HE getaway.

It's too fast to see in experiments and too fast for computers to model, but nothing is too fast for maths!

James Munro, Applied Maths PhD student

Cambridge has nurtured some of the world’s most influential mathematicians – Sir Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, G.H. Hardy, John Edensor Littlewood and Srinivasa Ramanujan among them. 

None of these great minds had the benefit of working in the CMS, seven futuristic pavilions built in 2000-3, but thirty Year 10s from Bedfordshire are clearly embracing the opportunity.

“I’m going to turn you all into a super computer” proclaims James Munro, an applied maths PhD student and today’s workshop leader. His audience exchanges nervous glances but James, an effervescent young tutor, is already bounding between tables handing out dice and describing the scenario.

“You are in a duel with a cowboy. He misses half of the time and you miss five times out of six. Fortunately, you get to shoot first….”

James invites everyone to start rolling their dice to simulate the probability of surviving the duel. For several minutes, a satisfying chorus of clattering dice and mathematical discussion fills the room. 

James keeps score and throws out questions about the results, before introducing progressively more complex scenarios. These include a Mexican Standoff in which one cowboy never misses, another strikes half the time and the weakest misses five times out of six. Before they know it, James’ students are tackling some thorny equations.

James’ own specialism, fluid dynamics, complements his teaching style. His workshop feels decidedly more energetic than an ordinary maths lesson. 

Describing his current work, James enthuses “I'm looking at the extremely fast flow that you get when two bubbles pop together to form one bubble. It's too fast to see in experiments and too fast for computers to model, but nothing is too fast for maths!”

And this is the whole point of the HE Getaway – to give young people inspiring university experiences and introduce them to scholars who rhapsodize about their subjects.

“I love doing these events”, says James, “maths is often seen as abstract and irrelevant, but playing games as we have today, can I hope, make students care about tough concepts like conditional probability and game theory. This group rose to the challenge and I was delighted to hear so many of them say they were interested in taking maths further.”

A tour of Emmanuel College and a physics taster session at the Cavendish Laboratory completed an action-packed day. The event was part of an HE partnership programme, in this instance between the Universities of Cambridge and Bedfordshire, which aims to raise aspirations among Year 9 – 11 students and give them an inspiring taste of higher education. 

As part of the partnership, a group of students from Cambridgeshire and Peterborough visited the University of Bedfordshire’s campus, where their programme included a workshop exploring computer game design. Both groups also took part in a team-building, problem-solving adventure day which included climbing trials and a rafting race. 

Project Coordinator, Matt Diston, said 

“We’ve developed a fantastic collaborative relationship with the University of Bedfordshire over the last four years which means we can provide inspiring opportunities for schools in both areas. Our programme is deliberately energetic and varied. We find it’s a really effective way to give Year 9 -11s a stronger sense of their abilities and interests, build their confidence and at the same demystify university so they can make positive decisions about their futures.” 


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