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New Book Aims to Provide Students with a Different Approach to Learning Maths – 'Mathematics as a Language'

News feed for Trinity College Dublin.

Dec 01, 2010

The School of Physics at Trinity College launched a new book that is an attempt to provide students with a different approach to learning mathematics based on reasoning rather than memorising. 

The Engineers Ireland Report on Task Force on Education of Mathematics and Science at Second Level summed up the concerns of many in February of this year when it said: “Engineers Ireland are concerned at the extent to which ‘rote learning’ is a teaching mechanism at Second Level for mathematical subjects rather than ‘learning by understanding’.  This concern is shared by other professions who require a high standard of competency and by the Minister for Education and Science.”

Learning mathematics in a way that develops logical reasoning skills is an important part of a general education, and is of benefit to everyone.  The author, Dr Sara McMurry, argues:  “The essence of the subject is mathematical reasoning, and that is not possible without understanding what  it means.  Learning mathematics by rote is like using a phrase book to communicate in a foreign language.  To be able to use maths it is necessary to understand its vocabulary and structure - to learn the language of mathematics.”

Summing up her motivation in writing this book Dr McMurry said: “Rote learning of mathematics at school has resulted in difficulties for students entering University.  They cannot remember what they learnt at school because they never understood it, and they have difficulty in applying even elementary mathematics in new areas. ”

The book is aimed at science and engineering undergraduates and second level teachers of mathematics.  The reader will be familiar, from the school syllabus, with the basic mathematical topics covered, but the book aims to  deepen the readers’ understanding and improve their ability to use maths.  These are actually essential steps for undergraduates who use more sophisticated mathematics in their degree programme and is immensely helpful for teachers of maths.

Frank Turpin, formally of Intel, who chairs the ‘Project Maths’ group, formerly launched the book and commented: “’Mathematics as a Language’ is a wonderfully accessible book that will prove both exciting and enlightening for our post-primary students.  No doubt many university students will also find it helpful in clearing up those mathematical concepts that they did not quite ‘get’ at school.  The publication of Dr McMurry's book is very timely, coming as it does just as Project Maths goes mainstream.  It will become a great resource for both students and teachers.”

Professor John Donegan, Head of the School of Physics at TCD, remarked that: “Mathematics is a hugely important area that underpins most of our modern world.  It is in the news a lot at present as the debate rages about how best to teach the subject to ensure that our students are competent and confident with its use.  TCD has a proud history of contribution to the subject.  Sara McMurry spent many years teaching the subject in mathematics classes and its use to Physics students in TCD.  In this book, Sara has written about the language of Mathematics and how a clear understanding of the language will allow students and their teachers to be more proficient in using mathematics reasoning.”

About TCD's School of Physics:

The School of Physics, Trinity College Dublin, is the oldest and largest physics department in Ireland. Its history stretches back to the appointment of the first professor in 1724. However, it is now characterised by its vibrant and dynamic teaching and research programme.  It runs two undergraduate physics degree programmes (in physics and physics and astrophysics) and two joint degrees with the Schools of Mathematics and Chemistry in theoretical physics and nanoscience respectively.

Its research programme is impressive with over 50 postdoctoral researchers and 110 postgraduate research students working along with the 28 academics. These principal investigators raise considerable funding (> €10 million per annum) from Irish, EU and international funding agencies. The areas of research in the School are:

  • Astrophysics
  • Magnetism and spinelectronics
  • Nanoelectronics/nanotechnology
  • Nanobiophysics
  • Photonics
  • Soft matter
  • Theoretical and computational solid state

The School is a significant player in two recent Trinity initiatives. It provides most of the research staff in CRANN, Ireland’s national centre for nanoscience and is actively engaged with the Science Gallery. Trinity physics staff have significant collaborations with the best international scientists and publish extensively in leading peer-reviewed journals.

About Sara McMurry:

Sara McMurry is a theoretical physicist who was educated at Bedford College, University of London (B.Sc.) and gained her doctorate in elementary particle theory from the University of Oxford. In 1968, Sara joined the academic staff of Trinity College Dublin as a lecturer in applied mathematics and later held a joint appointment as senior lecturer in the Schools of Mathematics and Physics teaching both physics and mathematics to physics and other science undergraduates.  Since her retirement in 2007, Sara has concentrated on writing Mathematics as a Language  and  spends some of her time as a volunteer teacher of English and mathematics in a rural primary school in Rajasthan, India.

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| communications@tcd.ie | Last updated: December 3, 2010