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Cardiff University Enterprise Team

Published 07 Dec 2016 • 10 min read

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Computing for Maths

Educational innovation leads to attributes for employment within the School of Mathematics.

Computing for Mathematics is a first year 20 credit module that is core to all first year Mathematics students at Cardiff University. It was delivered for the first time in 2013-2014 over both semesters to in advance of 150 students by Dr Vince Knight of the School of Mathematics and Neil Coles formally of the Cardiff University Enterprise team.

This module was in essence delivered in two consecutive halves. The first half aimed to give all future mathematicians relevant programming skills needed in the modern world. The second half sought to address the frequently identified need for mathematics graduates to recognise and engage in agendas of practical application for employment or enterprise.

The problem

Employers are in need of graduates who can articulate and contextualise their mathematical understanding for employment.

The QAA subject benchmark statement for mathematics (2007) identifies the subject as fundamental to scientific and technological development and indeed any form of discipline requiring an analytical model-building approach. The Institute of Mathematics references a career advice leaflet Mathematics Today (2008) that highlights business and commercial awareness as a key skill regularly flagged up by employers as requisite skill often lacking in mathematics graduates. Additionally the document flags up a range of enterprise competencies employers seek graduates to evidence.

There is a perception that Mathematicians are not able to translate their high level capacity to solve problems, discuss and develop complex idea and theorems and relate to ‘real world’ situations. This module sets out to highlight to students how they themselves can begin to contextualise their academic learning through innovative real world applications.

The foundations of the discipline are often abstract theory, so it is particularly important for students to engage in consideration and analysis of how their disciplinary knowledge can be applied. An awareness of how mathematical implementations applied in industrial and commercial contexts aids students in understanding the practical benefits and value they themselves can offer future employers as well as highlighting previously unconsidered potential career paths.

Our approach

Firstly a philosophical question needed to be addressed, ‘Should a modern mathematician know how to write code?’ Historically this question has been very subjective, however it is argued that through the coupling of coding skills and pedagogic practice that allows for a ‘real world’ application students will not become isolated, but be able to explore coding as a vector for solving real problems.

Flipping the classroom

The autumn semester is taught using a flipped classroom framework encouraging students to develop coding skills. The methodology not only allows for self-directed learning, but prepares students for an entrepreneurial context by offering elements of uncertainty, thereby building key competencies’ for employment or enterprise.

Company teams

Alongside formal lectures on areas in areas of innovation and project management during the spring semester, guest speakers are used to influence and persuade students’ to look beyond the class room as they are expected to self-select ‘company teams’. They are challenged with finding a societal value for their newly acquired coding skills. Each company team elects a leading Director and Company Secretary. Each role has differing duties including feeding back to the module leader through weekly company minutes and explaining their idea through ‘lightening pitches’ to all teams which forms part of the ‘General Council Meeting’. The minutes allow for weekly academic led feedback, whereas the pitches gain immediate peer to peer feedback via a live web form.

Outcomes

  1. Coding skills learned and applied to a student led ‘real world’ context.
  2. Large group teaching and a flipped classroom approach enables knowledge and attribute development for employment.
  3. Enterprise successfully embedded in a compulsory 20 credit mathematics module

The module has attracted high attendance and positive feedback coupled with developed creativity and communication skills. The enabled students have become more able to apply mathematical theory to a real word context.

Allowing students’ to explore and define their own projects has led to concepts of mathematical theory being studied well in advance of when would be expected, so in future we can expect stronger grounding on topic introduction.

Projects included the building of smart phone application that calculated distance travelled in a taxi and the accurate resulting fair for each passenger (who may or may not have left the vehicle before the final stop) to websites that judge contests using a statistical technique called Game Theory.

Feedback

Academic

“It is evident to me that the skills the students are learning in this module will not only serve them well throughout their degree, but also put them in an excellent position to apply them to the various environments that they will find themselves in after their studies. I’m delighted that this new module is now part of our core mathematics programme.”

- Professor Paul Harper, Deputy Head of School of Mathematics.

“The fact that student work is motivated by real world problems ensures that they learn how to learn how to solve real world problems. The liaison with Cardiff University Enterprise has proved invaluable to the design and delivery of this module as I did not have the relevant expertise to put all this in place.”

- Dr Vincent Knight, Module Leader.

Professional

“As a lecturer in Mathematics the skills being taught in this module gives students an excellent foundation for their degree but also their future roles in the world.”

- Dr Steven Lind, Manchester Metropolitan University and guest speaker.


"What I hope the students took away from the seminar is that setting up a business is a valid, challenging and fascinating career choice to explore."

- Neil Cottrell, Founder of LexAble and guest speaker.

Student

"Why did I have to wait to wait until university to learn this?”

- Matt Lunn, undergraduate mathematics student (2014).

"I really liked the group work; it helped me learn what it’s like to work in a team. Found some of the lectures/talks given about computing very interesting and inspiring (especially computation fluid dynamics)."

- Unidentified undergraduate mathematics student (2014).

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