Mental Health Awareness Day - Something We Can All Do

Today is World Mental Health Awareness Day, and there's a quick thing that you can do to help someone out. It's free and it's easy, but it can have an enormous effect:

If you've been meaning to get in touch with someone for a while but just haven't got around to it, do it now.

Seriously, you don't know how much of an effect just getting in touch can have. You don't have to say much. Just a simple indication that they're being thought about can change someone's day. It has brought me out of the depths of despair on more occasions than I can count.

Try it again tomorrow, too. And then the day after. And the day after that.

The specific focus of his year's Mental Health Awareness Day is mental health in the workplace. There's lots of advice on twitter today, but if you want one more thing to do to help your colleagues, then try this:

Ask a colleague how they are, and if you can help with anything. Mean it.

Last thing, I promise: don't try to aim the above just at people that you can identify as having mental health problems. Most people struggling on the inside hide it pretty well, and little if anything makes it out to the surface. If you think you don't work with anyone who has a mental health issue, it's almost guaranteed that you're wrong. Whoever you are, whoever you work with:

Go out of your way to be explicitly and repeatedly nice to people.

This strategy has absolutely no negative consequences and many positive ones.

Maths Scholars Celebratory Event 2017

I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at the celebration event for this year's lucky recipients of the IMA's Mathematics Teacher Training Scholarships, and I'd like to say a few words about my experiences.

One of the freebies was a stress-ball in the shape of an apple.
The event was held at the rather lovely Conference Aston venue in Birmingham*, and as a speaker I was put up in an equally lovely room in the venue's hotel. The night before I met up with the event's organisers, Sophie and Vanessa, and the other speakers, Luke Bacon and Anne Fieldhouse, where there was food, a maths quiz, and one or two glasses of something or other. I love events like this, where there's a chance for the speakers to network and, perhaps even more importantly, socialise as well as the attendees.

In the morning, after a very nice breakfast, we helped to set up the sign-in desk, assembled the Shedload of Free Stuff (as mentioned by Scholar Evan in his blog post following the event), and then set up for the day's talks.

The first was from Yours Truly, in my day-job role. Those in attendance had to sit through an hour of me firing off some examples of secondary-curriculum maths topics being used in a cryptographical context, then were rewarded with a break, as much tea as their bladders could cope with, and some of those tiny Danish pastries that seemingly come from nowhere during all the best conferences. Refuelled, we made Enigma machines out of crisp tubes*.

Luke Bacon inspiring a new generation of maths teachers.
The second session was Luke's. He presented some fantastic ideas for using practical investigations to explore mathematics, and we were also treated to a case-study from a previous student on Imperial College's INSPIRE PGCE programme.

Finally, Anne, who introduced us all to a host of situations acting as springboards for really rich, open-ended exercises in mathematical thinking.

All three sessions (if I do say so myself) were engaging, inspiring, motivational, and charged with positivity and encouragement, and I am sure that the attending Scholars enjoyed the day as well as finding it useful. I found it to be a brilliant opportunity in terms of my own professional development: as a teacher-who's-not-a-teacher-any-more it can be easy to lose touch with developments in teaching and learning, and connected curricula, so to have the chance to interact with teachers at the very beginning of their careers in the classroom is a really very useful thing indeed.

If this day was any indication of the support and opportunities that these mathematics teaching scholars can expect throughout the rest of their training, then they're in very good hands indeed. I found myself wishing that such a programme had been available when I was completing my own PGCE just over ten years ago**.

I was left truly inspired, pleased that such programmes are available for new generations of maths teachers, and fully intending to keep in touch with the programme and take part in (hopefully contribute to) its activities in the future.

* Yes, really. You can do it too, if you like.
** Actually, I've just checked the Scholarship Criteria and I wouldn't have been eligible for the programme. "People with the highest degree classifications necessarily make the best teachers." - Discuss?

So Big, It's Like The Biggest (Prime) Number Ever

One of the sessions I deliver is about modern cryptographic algorithms, specifically looking at RSA. This involves looking at prime numbers, and generally speaking, the bigger they are, the better. On the penultimate slide (written in May 2017) I show the biggest Prime known as of that date. It's

I tell people that I've written it in that format because it's far too long to write down as a "normal" number as it has 22,388,618 digits, but somebody - Matt Parker, no less - has actually gone and had it printed. You can see that in the Numberphile video below:

As far as I'm aware this is still the largest prime known to humanity.

World Mental Health Day 2017 is Coming - Show Your Support

The Rat cares
I never forget when World Mental Health day is because, ironically*, fittingly, or however you want to put it, it's my birthday. This year you can show your support for people all around the world who struggle, battle, manage, cope, or otherwise deal with mental health problems on a daily basis by wearing this free badge from Mind. They'll also send along some wellbeing tips.

Of course, caring for someone with mental health issues (whether that's someone else or yourself) isn't about freebies, and it's not just for one day per year (which is partly why I haven't put the actual date anywhere in this post). Those of us who suffer do so all year round and, in many cases, silently.

So how can you help?

The easiest thing to do is to show you care. For me, some unsolicited contact works wonders, even if the bits of me that are struggling stop me from showing it much of the time. When the rat in the picture arrived, completely unannounced, it made my day, and he sits on my desk at work overlooking the keyboard as a regular reminder of that.

You don't have to send people cuddly toys**, though: a seemingly pointless post-it note attached to my monitor when I wander into the office in the morning can turn the tide; sometimes just being noticed gives something to latch onto - a smile and a "hello" from a stranger might just make the difference.

If you're worried about someone else, Mind's website has a few things that might help.

If you're worried about yourself, try this tool.

If you need someone to talk to... hi! I'm Tom. Please drop me a line.

Are there any tips, tools, tricks, websites, activities or organisations that you've used to help someone else or yourself? Please post them in the comments.

* I know, I know, it's just like ten thousand spoons...
** The Rat is anything but a cuddly toy, and he's mildly miffed that you even thought that's who I was referring to just then.

Talking Maths in Public - Not Just a Conference

Any conference that begins in a pub is fine by me
Talking Maths in Public was a two-day event for people who participate in the communication of maths and mathematical topics to the public, whether that's part of a salaried job, freelance work, or on a voluntary basis. I'm an enthusiastic maths communicator generally, but it's also a part of my role as Learning Manager at Bletchley Park, so it wasn't difficult to justify taking both a Friday out of my working week and a Saturday of my own time to attend.

After a 2 1/2 hour Thursday afternoon drive to Bath, I checked into the University halls of residence and took the opportunity to take a 40 minute walk down the hill into the city centre where the conference's first activity was in full swing: some informal networking at the Bath Brew House*. Normally terrified of social activities, it was nice to see a whole bunch of faces that I've met before, some a number of times, and some I've been lucky enough to develop friendships with. The conference as a whole was populated with a pleasing mixture of familiar faces (either from having worked together on something or through the annual MathsJam gathering, or both) and faces that I look forward to finding familiar in the future.

That's the thing with this community: we - maths communicators - are relatively few and far between, but dedicated and enthusiastic with it so you tend to run into many of the same faces when you turn up to related events. In my experience, this accelerates the potential for meaningful discussions and friendly chats alike, and newcomers are readily welcomed into the folds of a gradually expanding family of individuals all working towards the same goals.

Networking opportunities - both professional and social - were a key part of #TMiP17 (that's the twitter hashtag we adopted for the weekend: click for some snapshots of the event), but there were lots of sessions and workshops designed to share good practice and encourage professional development as well.

Here's a rundown of the weekend's activities. If you weren't lucky enough to be there I'm more than happy to talk in greater depth about any of these activities - just leave a comment or get in touch!


After settling in, greeting old friends and making some new ones, there was the obligatory icebreaker activity. I'll be stealing this one for future use - each of us had a number on our name badge, and we had to arrange ourselves into groups based on various criteria - finding the others with the same number, for example, through to forming a group with four other people, all of whom have a different remainder modulo 4.

James Soper opened with a workshop on presenter skills, wowing us with his juggling skills, encouraging us to be reflective in our practice. He showcased some exciting demos, explaining how to build them into stories, and showed us some examples of not-so-good practice as well. I got to drop some bottles.

After some tea-and-pastries, Rachel Mason gave us her golden rules of freelancing, and then Alison Kiddle demonstrated some bad practice in her accessibility workshop, followed by some great advice regarding how to get it right.

More books!
So many books!
Have you ever seen so many?
You guessed it - books!
Over lunch some attendees took advantage of the free photographer offering free promotional headshots, and we all had an opportunity to check out the tables covered with just some of the favourite maths books of those present. The collection is featured in the photographs to the right!

Appropriately enough, the next talk was from Rob Eastaway and Jim Martin, providing views of the world of book publishing from both an author (Rob) and a publisher (Jim).

Next up were some breakout discussion sessions chaired by attendees. I won't go too deeply into these, but if anyone wants to hear my thoughts (and what I picked up from others) on any of these topics feel free to drop me a line.

  • How can maths communicators support mainstream education?
  • Is Primary maths communication under-represented?
  • Sharing tips and tricks to improve production levels in talks and workshops,
  • Why is mathematics underrepresented at general public festivals and events?
  • What can we do to address the lack of diversity in mathematics?
  • How can we use digital platforms (e.g. YouTube) to do meaningful maths outreach?
The formal part of the day was finished by Timandra Harkness with her comedy workshop. Never before had I noticed such parallels between being good at sex and being good at maths!

By this time we were safely outside of working hours, so it was time to head to the pub. I missed out on The Huntsman as I took the opportunity for a break, but I did thoroughly destroy my diet at Jimmy's.

Wow, was that just one day?


Saturday started off with some quick-fire project presentations from other delegates. I'd advise anyone with any interest in maths education to take a look at all of these:

Margaret Brown presented about Mathsworld UK, Richard Elwes gave us an overview of his own exploits, centering on singing maths in private; Zoe Griffiths spoke about Think Maths; Francesca Lezzi introduced us to Edinburgh University's Outreach programme, and Nicholas Jackson talks maths at Science Fiction conventions.

That's not all! Cindy Lawrence spoke about the unfortunately not-in-England National Museum of Mathematics; Christian Lawson-Perfect mentioned the Aperiodical blog and the various things on his website including the weird and wonderful digital interactives he's created to explain all sorts of things.

Kevin Lord was representing the Further Maths Support Programme and incited us all to spontaneous applause with the news that Mathematics is now the country's most popular A-level for boys, with its popularity amongst girls having made great gains too.

Becky Warren works for NRICH, Imogen Morris communicates maths via the medium of knitting, and Matthew Scroggs was, as ever, flying the flag for the brilliant (and free) Chalkdust magazine. Paul Stephenson told us about the Magic Mathworks Travelling CircusKit Yates is involved with Bath University's Mathletes, and demonstrated how to miss Ben Sparks with a kitchen roll tube.

Sam Durbin does all sorts with the Royal Institution, not least the Masterclass series, of which I have delivered a few!** Colin Wright evangelised about MathsJam (I'll be at this year's gathering as long as I remember to buy my ticket soon...) and showed us his really interesting Topics in Maths project.

Closing this section was Ben Sparks, who spoke about his various dealings in maths outreach with the University of Bath, including the Mega Menger and Mega Pixel.


Next was a guided development workshop, led by Ben Sparks and Sam Durbin,  in which we were encouraged to work together to consider a different and innovative way to communicate various areas off mathematics, and also to think about the structure to and story behind a potential session or talk that we might deliver in the future.

The conference finished over a long, late lunch with puzzles and games being played as people gradually filtered away - there was a chocolate fountain too, with Adam Townsend espousing its mathematical relevance as we wolfed down chocolate-drenched marshmallows and banana chunks.

Post- conference

I've written this post more to process my own experiences than anything else, but I hope others may find it useful - especially if they weren't able to attend. I'm more than happy for anyone to get in touch and ask for more information about anything touched upon above.

If you attended Talking Maths in Public 2017 and you'd like to say hi, or have any ideas about how we might work together, or if you think I might be able to help you out with anything, then I'm interested: get in touch!

Alison's post-conference to-do list seems to be a good thing to be getting on with, now...

* I can recommend it, its beer, and its food.
** What, I can't use my own blog post as a bit of self-promotion?!

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