Visiting Dyson

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Ifte and I went for an afternoon’s explore at the newly created Dyson Institute – an offshoot of Warwick University nestled within the Dyson HQ in the middle of nowhere in Wiltshire. 33 undergrads in the first year of the experiment. 1 day of intensive lectures, 1 day of self-study, and 3 days working as an engineer for the company. The students/employees get paid, rather than paying, for the experience. A fascinating model, always a privilege to visit somewhere with a strong vision.

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Photos elsewhere were forbidden…

Here are some thoughts from the day:

  • 4% of students study engineering in the UK. In Singapore it is 40%. What is the ideal number?
  • Despite it being an Open Day, the closest we got to seeing any engineering was being shown the terrifyingly secure doors, controlled by fingerprint scanners, that let in the engineers to the inner sanctum. A shame.
  • Is learning only worthwhile if it has a direct impact to industry? What is the link between university and employment? Is this a commercialisation of learning? A necessary evil or something to be actively celebrated?
  • Universities still have a role to play. It is just that the more varied the options for students, the better
  • Currently the institute had a standard A level offer. Given that students’ experiences at school will be so varied, why bother? With a cohort of 30 students you can assess in more personal ways, and support those who need it at the beginning of their journey.
  • Only 1 in 8 engineers are female. Ask a child to draw an engineer and they will draw a dirty man fixing something, rather than a woman creating something beautiful.
  • We heard of teachers transforming their practice with the help of inspiration from the Dyson Foundation. A class of quiet students methodically filing away at their acrylic torches was transformed into a class of joyful chaos, students all pursuing products that have a real need.
  • Dyson is a deliberately youthful organisation. James Dyson, at our swanky meal, said “I crave naïveté and hate experience”.
  • Speaking of James, his name was dropped constantly by everyone throughout the day. I asked about this, and the employees spoke of him as a centralised point of inspiration, rather than as a weight crushing down on them. Fine balance for a figurehead to strike.
  • One of the students said “At school, the teacher knows the right answer. Here, they have no idea. If they already knew, then there would be no point in asking”. This is not the distinction between school and university, but between bad and good teaching?
  • I overheard a Dyson student complaining to his teacher – “You made us de-bug a computer program just using pen and paper. When would we never need to do that?” The tyranny of relevance rears its head here – learning for learning’s sake has scarpered?

Thank you to the Dyson Institute for a fascinating insight into a really exciting new journey. Best of luck!! It has reminded me to get stuck into the world of university teaching.

Two Maths Challenges

Twice in November, Yr12 students expanded their brains while thinking hard about UK Maths Challenges.

First, every Mathematician in the year-group sat a 2 hour Individual exam. A few were visibly nervous the day before – “How can I revise? What if I fail?”. The idea of an exam (anything done individually in silence in protected time) that is done for fun, and means nothing, is utterly alien to them. This is a bit of a shame.

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My predictions of who would do best in the challenge were inaccurate. Students who are thoughtful and quiet did excellently, but tend to fall of my radar in wizzy interactive lessons. A useful reminder. Some students who don’t seem to be putting much effort into normal lessons and are struggling, still did excellently. I wonder why? The questions are assessing something different to a usual Maths exam…

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A few weeks later, after enjoyable Friday afternoon training sessions, four Further Maths students traipsed across London, to Pimlico Academy, for the team challenge. 18 teams, with disproportionate number of boys, and of private schools.

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Tennis balls and prime numbers – excellent warm-up

It is a rare event where warm-up maths questions on the tables are enough to reduce a room of 72 teenagers to silence, just for the joy of solving. A shame that there was not more talk – either within teams when trying to solve group problems, or between teams (I love a bit of structured socialising between different schools, but my team definitely did not appreciate my forcing them into meeting others)

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“Demoralisingly hard, but fun” summarised S at the end of the afternoon. Private schools dominated the top positions, which would be a hard thing to fix, even if you thought it was a problem… We came 14th out of 18th, very respectable. There are no winners or losers in the Maths Temple, only worshippers at the altar of truth.

I wandered around asking the other teachers “what is the vision of your school”, and was baffled by how baffled they were at the question. “What do you mean? It’s just a school…” their confused faces said. I take for granted the strong vision of School 21.

Afterwards, organised fun – walk along the Thames Path (beautiful reflections of skyscrapers on the river) to Turner Collection at the Tate Britain. Heated argument, when S took a photo of a detail of one of Turner’s sea paintings and turned it into a meme that A had “invented”, for snapchat dissemination. ‘Delete that! That’s MY meme!”. Ha!

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Learning together about Algorithms

My class and I are learning about algorithms, together. I was nervous because:

  • I don’t know much about algorithms
  • I had always found algorithms a fairly dry subject.

In fact, the process has been a beautiful example of student enthusiasm and knowledge motivating the teacher, of us learning together.

Pre-work:

  • Teach yourself to code
  • Teach yourself to solve a rubik’s cube (Every student can do this, and the craze is slowly spreading across the year-group. I cannot solve it still.)

Intro sessions, to understand the journey from words, to pseudo-code/flowchart, to formal python code.

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“What is the point of pseudo-code?”. Half an hour later: “Ahhh, now I see…”
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How to socialise in the corridor…
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Rubik to Computer
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Rubik to flowchart

Collaboration with Computer Scientists:

  • We have joined up with the Computer Science class. We send them algorithms, they make them sexy and efficient. They send us algorithms, we prove they always work.
  • Example: the above pseudo-code for corridor greetings became this code. A joke death-predictor became this
  • A student who studies both maths and Computing went away and revised his knowledge of matrices to find the inverse of a matrix

We debated, inspired by the moral arguments of Cathy O’Neil in Weapons of Math Destruction. The Wright brothers used to swap sides when they couldn’t agree, to empathise with the other point of view. In that vein, the computer scientists had to argue that “Algorithms do more harm than good”.

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An algorithm for working out which side won

Creativity with Desmos

Task: collect as many blue dots as possible, as few reds as possible.

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Learning: inequalities in the plane.

Outcomes were very surprising. The assumption was that students would fiddle around with straight lines. Instead, they leapt ahead to bizarre curves, often using trial-and-error, and the power of online graph-sketching.

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What even is this!?
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Some great transformation of functions
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The equation of an ellipse has never been taught…
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Successfully turned the task into something very boring and easy. (Again, the student had only ever seen circles centred at the origin before)
  • Is it okay that these curves would never have been dreamt up if the students didn’t have access to technology?
  • Would there have been more profitable learning if I had restricted the game to straight lines?