Bringing maths to a new generation of minds


Posted 27 July 2017

For many of us, our experience of learning maths ends when we leave school. Yet studying maths at college can open up whole new worlds of understanding. Dr Maria Meehan is intent on finding out more how students make that leap to advanced mathematical thinking.

She also spearheads an initiative that places UCD undergraduates into schools to help develop their communication skills and encourage young minds to study maths at third level.

Dr Meehan’s own journey through maths education was sparked at an early age. “When I was about 12 I wanted to be a maths teacher more than anything else in the world, and that is why I did a maths degree,” she explains. “Then I realised the maths at college is so different to the maths at school - I became really hooked on it, this other side of maths, the proving and definitions and the theoretical and abstract side, I fell for that completely.”

Now a Senior Lecturer at UCD School of Mathematical Sciences, Dr Meehan is interested in how students themselves make that leap to advanced mathematical thinking. She carries out ‘action research’ by reading the literature and then testing out concepts with her students to see how they learn.

“You come up with particular tasks, or you experiment with the way that you present the material,” explains Dr Meehan. “The best thing for me is looking at what students do, getting them to work in class and seeing what are their ideas are. Some might be right and some might be wrong, but the wrong ones are also valid in that it is a misconception that they might need to address.”

The students can sometimes even come up with their own novel ideas when solving the problems: “When you teach something for a few years you get used to the way you think about things, but then you can get a surprise,” says Dr Meehan.

She is part of a group of maths educators around Ireland who encourage research into the area, and she also runs an elective module for undergraduate students at UCD to help encourage their own communication skills.

The ‘Undergraduate Ambassadors Scheme’ places UCD students in local secondary schools, where they can work alongside maths teachers for a few hours each week and develop a special project of interest to the students.

“They are acting as ambassadors for mathematics and ambassadors for UCD,” explains Dr Meehan. “It’s nice that there’s a student in the classroom who is studying maths or engineering or actuarial science and they give this other side to the subject.”

The initiative is now in its fifth year and has been growing in popularity, according to Dr Meehan, who explains that the module - for which the students get credit - involves demonstrating transferrable skills.

“They have to give me evidence that their ability to communicate maths has improved as a result of this module,” she says. “There’s no point being excellent at your subject if you can’t when you go out, be it as a teacher or part of a research team or working with industry, and communicate ideas.”

Dr Maria Meehan was interviewed by freelance journalist Dr Claire O'Connell