Nemesis

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I enjoy doing maths and I spend a lot of time working on it, but I have a hard time calling myself a mathematician. It’s not because I dislike the label – on the contrary, I don’t feel as though I’m really worth of the title. Real mathematicians… well, they’re the kind of people who go to the National Mathematics Summer School (NMSS, affectionately pronounced as Nemesis).

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Some of the view during my walk from the bus stop to the part of the ANU campus where I stayed.

Perhaps you think you know some nerds. Do they chuckle with childish delight when considering the cyclical nature of inverses that exist in the set of Gaussian integers modulo the complex number (4 + i)? No? Then step aside and let the real nerds take the stage. These guys – and hence by extension, their tutors and lecturers (who are mostly NMSS alumni) – are the real deal.

I would never have attended NMSS as a student. I didn’t have anywhere near the mathematical chops to even be considered as a candidate (there are roughly 70 positions for the entirety of Australia). But I may well have enjoyed it if I had been invited. Since it’s a gathering of students from across the country, they try to assume very little prior knowledge – hence their focus on number theory, which is renowned as easily accessible and abundance of opportunities to “think deeply about simple things”, the motto of NMSS’s recently retired director.

It’s intentionally different from a school learning environment, which by its very nature emphasises assessment and competitiveness. No one hands in their problems and marks aren’t assigned for anything. The whole experience is crafted to encourage exploration, playfulness and creativity. If you’re not a maths teacher – or even if you are – and those words seem like the antithesis of mathematics to you, then that’s a sad testimony to just how different high school maths is to the actual maths that mathematicians do. (I’m not sure if that’s a gap that will ever be bridged, but there it is for whatever you want to make of it.)

But this week, I wasn’t there as a student – I was there as a teacher, to get a concentrated version of what the students were experiencing and then to think about how that would inform our practice as educators (particularly with regard to nurturing and encouraging gifted and talented mathematicians). It was a jam-packed couple of days and I found myself constantly thinking of new and awesome ideas that I would love to start implementing when I get back to the real world, but unfortunately I think I’ve just about maxed out (or exceeded) the number of new things I’ll be doing this year. So mostly I think I was mentally filing things away for the future, waiting for a time when I can act on them and give them the time and effort they deserve.

One thing that remains deeply impressed on my mind, though, is the importance of teaching mathematics in an engaging way (and, related to that, encouraging people who are capable of that into the profession rather than ushering them off into engineering or actuarial studies). Being exposed to so many passionate maths teachers (and I use that term broadly of anyone who teaches mathematics, not just people who work in high schools) was a vivid reminder of how important the delivery method is in shaping a students’ experience of a subject.

If someone teaches you how to cook by forcing you through lessons and explaining things in a bland way (see what I did there?), then who can blame you for disliking the kitchen? But if someone visibly enjoys the process of mashing food together in an awful mess, if they express genuine delight at the intriguing ways that foods can relate and be combined with one another, if they marvel with closed eyes at the smell of what they have just concocted, then who can help but feel inspired to try and master the same subject that brings so much joy? And I think that is a part of why Jamie Oliver rose to fame so rapidly (and subsequently kept it). I hate cooking, I hate the lengthy preparation, I hate the mess, and I hate the low-quality stuff that I usually produce. But when I watch Jamie Oliver at work, I want to get up and cook. I want to give it a go and learn how he does what he does. And that’s exactly the same vibe that the NMSS tutors and lecturers give off to the students who are privileged enough to attend.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if ordinary students could experience some of that during their normal schooling? It shouldn’t just be for the elites. I’m under no illusion that the whole NMSS experience can be replicated on a large scale for the entirety of a school year, but the world deserves to know that mathematics is a fascinating and amazing subject – not the dry, boring thing that most people think maths is. And we’ll need passionate mathematicians and educators to accomplish that. Now there’s a long term goal worth working on!

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