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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