Making a Difference for Maths students…

Ciaran maths NUIMWe recently had a really good chat with Dr. Ciarán Mac an Bhaird, Maths Support Centre Manager from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics in NUI, Maynooth. Here’s what he had to say…

What inspired you to choose a career in Maths?

Growing up with my parents, brothers and sisters on our small farm in Monaghan, Maths was never treated differently to other subjects at school. It was a normal subject, we saw our parents using it on a daily basis for calculations and no one said it was hard or different. If you got something wrong in maths, as with any other subject, you tried to find out why and improve the next time. I also had very good teachers at school, and lecturers in University. Some of these lecturers were inspirational, especially my supervisor. When I discovered in tutorials that I seemed to be good at explaining mathematics to students, and that I enjoyed the experience, I decided that this was what I wanted to do.

Can you tell us about your role and about the Maths Support Centre at Maynooth University? Does it help to improve students’ experience of mathematics at college?

I am a lecturer and I manage the Maths Support Centre in Maynooth. My lecturing role is standard, I try to teach to the level of the students that are in my class, taking into consideration their backgrounds and try to ensure that they are exposed to and understand material which will help them with the next step in their education or career. I also try to engage them with the material, and show them why it is relevant.

I was asked by the Department to set up and manage the Maths Support Centre (MSC) in 2007, under the guidance of Dr. Ann O’Shea. It was established to try and give students the opportunity to get to a level where they could manage and even excel with mathematics at University. We have gone through a range of initiatives over the years, the most successful model being the free drop-in facility which we provide to both University and second level students. It is very popular and we reached 100000 student visits in April 2015. We have published research which indicates that regular and appropriate student engagement with supports can improve their retention and progression, students also report a better attitude towards the subject and more confidence in their mathematical ability. The MSC staff promote a friendly and non-judgmental experience atmosphere, and the majority of students who use it appropriately are very positive about their experience.

What is the most rewarding element of your job?

When I see the difference that we can make to students. Sometimes it is clear, especially in a one-to-one situation in the MSC, you are explaining something and you see the light-bulb moment when the student understands. Sometimes you don’t see this moment, but then you get an acknowledgement from a student, an email or comment, where they tell you about how something you did made a difference. It may not have even been a mathematical explanation, it might have been advice on a subject choice, or advice on how to study, or a strategy on how to tackle certain problems. I enjoy working in the MSC, it is a lot of fun.

I work closely with Dr. O’Shea on the research we conduct into our initiatives. It is very important that everything we do is fully analysed and its effectiveness determined. It is very satisfying when you can measure the positive impact on something that you do to help students.

What do you think we can do to inspire more young people to pursue a career in Maths and STEM in general?

There are several approaches that I would advocate.

First, getting suitable graduates in Maths and STEM to go out and talk to students and parents. My colleagues and I give lots of talks to schools, and we see the impact that this can have on students attitudes towards the subject. I think companies who use Maths and STEM skills also have a big role to play in this regard. It can be difficult to see or appreciate the key role that Maths and STEM plays in our everyday lives, so when companies give talks to students and parents, or invite them in to see their facilities, I think this can make a big difference.

Getting more good news stories into the wider media is also essential. Unfortunately, the majority of headline stories represented in the media seem to be ‘bad-news’ about Maths and STEM. This has an incredibly negative impact on people’s attitudes, to the point where it has become widely acceptable to say that you are ‘bad at maths or STEM’. Many view these subjects as being only for a select few. This is completely untrue and needs to be challenged.

Could schools be doing more to make maths more fun?

I can not comment in general as I have not taught very much at second level. In my experience, and certainly in the majority of the schools in which I have given talks, the teachers and principals are very positive about the subject and this is important. I know from personal experience the difference a positive and committed teacher can make to students and parents. Certainly, I would encourage schools to get actively involved with Maths Week and Science Week activities.

Why do you think events like Maths Week and Science Week are so important?

 
I think they are a great opportunity to see Mathematics or Science related events that ordinarily you would not experience. When I am not giving talks, I go to as many other events as I can and I always find out new and exciting things about Mathematics and STEM. For example, some of the events during Science Week 2015 at Maynooth are listed at https://www.maynoothuniversity.ie/faculty-science-engineering/science-week and they gave great insight into both how Science and Maths helps us in our everyday lives and also helps us to explore the known universe.