Maths play and work

My formal mathematical eduction began by copying sums off laminated strips and completing them. This was ‘work’ and it didn’t do it for me. I preferred playing with those connectable cubic centimetre bricks, working out what sort of things you could build.

Fast forward to A-levels and I was playing with my programmable calculator. I was the biggest Casio fx 7000G nerd in school. I took it everywhere and would spend breaks cramming those 422 bytes with racing games, rotating prisms and Mandelbrot generators (clearly not all at the same time).

The lesson I’m sidling up to is that learning should be interactive. Ideally, play.

If you’re not a reader of my personal press then you may not know that I’ve spent the past month getting into a new job. It’s based in the Maths department of the University of Birmingham on a project called STACK, conceived and developed by Chris Sangwin. My job is to extend it and ready it for the big time.

What’s it all about? In plain English: it’s an online tutor/tester that really ‘understands’ maths and so can intelligently interact with a learner.

More geekily: At the heart is a computer algebra system which gives you lots of high-level commands for generating and processing mathematical entities. On top of this you can build arbitrarily-complex potential response trees to analyse, credit and give personalised feedback on student input to randomly-generated problems. This whole thing then plugs into Moodle, a supremely modular virtual learning environment. It’s open source from end to end. The STACK acronym alludes to these layers.

There’s a lot of ideas and research behind this project and a book in the works. Maybe a few blog posts too.

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