Olympic structures inspire next generation of mathematicians

A University of Bath engineering lecturer has been using the distinctive new structures of London’s Olympic Park and the maths behind their construction to inspire the next generation of mathematicians.

With funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Dr Paul Shepherd of the University’s Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering has created a special interactive presentation entitled ‘Building the Olympics’ to talk to budding mathematicians around the country about the relevance of maths and its application in the modern world.

In his presentation Dr Shepherd draws on comedy, music, Jenga and a specially-designed shaking table to not only explain, for instance, how geometrical equations are used in the building and design of structures such as the Olympic Stadium and the Velodrome but also to help 15-17 year-olds understand phenomena like resonance.

Working with Maths Inspiration, one of the country’s largest maths enrichment programmes for teenagers, his talks are performed in large venues and have reached audiences of 13,000 since the project started in 2009.

Dr Shepherd, who has previously been involved in the design of stadiums around the world such as Dublin’s Aviva Stadium and the Emirates Stadium in London, said: “I devised the project to give maths students something they won’t see as part of the curriculum. There is no engineering A-level, so it’s hard for young people to know it as a subject.

“My talk helps them to realise the real-world applications of maths and engineering and to understand that it can be cool to be a mathematician.”

Rob Eastaway, Director of project partner Maths Inspiration, said: “Teenagers really value hearing about how maths has been used in the real world, particularly when the speaker is an expert with inside knowledge.

“Paul’s insightful and entertaining talk has been a great demonstration of the important role that maths plays in engineering, particularly when the topic is something as relevant and topical as the Olympic Stadium. I know Paul has influenced numerous teenagers in their choice of university degree.”

All Maths Inspiration shows have three speakers giving interactive talks on a diverse range of topics followed by a lively Q&A session at the end. At each show, teachers can access follow-up material such as worksheets for use in the classroom.

Dr Shepherd is a passionate promoter of the public understanding of science and plans to continue with his public engagement work after ‘Building the Olympics’ ends later this month by developing a new presentation around a broader theme.

Click here to access the learning materials Dr Shepherd uses in his talks.

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