Archive for the 'public engagement' Category

Climate modelling for a global audience

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

As the latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Assessment Report is released, it is a good time to find out more about the science behind it. Over the last few years we have developed two courses through a project in conjunction with the Met Office Precis team and climate scientists here in Oxford, that gaims to encourage the sharing of high quality information about climate science, modelling and the interpretation of climate change modelling experiments.  This project has used online learning explicitly to target students in the developing world, aiming to reach areas where face to face training has not been able to make a widespread impact – although being online they are available to anyone anywhere so everyone can benefit.

To do this we developed a free course ‘An introduction to the science of climate and climate change‘  so far this has see just under 4000 students enrol, and this number is growing all the time. When last analysed we had students from 171 different countries and about 45%  of these were from the developing world.  This has been followed up by a second course ‘Constructing and Applying High Resolution Climate Scenarios‘ which enables small cohorts of fee paying students to learn more advanced content in small groups supported by a tutor. This again has achieved a truly global audience with students from Eritrea to Nepal, definitely reaching people who could never come to Oxford for a face to face course.  With so much of the scientific understanding on climate based around modelling, understanding how this actually works is information everyone can benefit from – and with our second course due to run next  on the 28th October, there is still time to sign up.

A massive slice of pi

Thursday, March 28th, 2013

On the March 14th at 1.59pm (3.14159 in geek speak) we ran Pi Day Live, a free online event ‘rediscovering’ the famous number hosted by Professor Marcus du Sautoy. During the event participants were invited to use one of our Find Pi methods to derive pi and then upload it to our website as part of  a crowd sourcing experiment. We had around one thousand participants pre-register for the ‘Online Lecture Theatre’ (Blackboard Collaborate run by JISC Netskills (Massive thanks to them for providing such a professional and friendly service) from 17 different countries. About 800 of these were schools who signed up as classes via teachers. The pupils ranged from 11 to 18 years old. We also had circa 1500 participants who simply turned-up on the day and got involved via our YouTube ‘Big Screen’ (Google Hangouts on Air).

You can watch a recording of the event and run your own Find Pi activity here:

Pi Day Live was a pilot event for an engagement format I designed called Oxford Connect. The thinking behind Oxford Connect is to create a conversational and involving way to engage with ‘concepts, ideas and research’ from the University of Oxford. This is a Public Engagement approach but it also has potential for Widening Participation and the Impact agenda. The emphasis is very much on the live aspect of the event i.e. what differentiates this from a pre-recorded video, what would motivate participants to get involved at a particular moment in time? In the case of Pi Day Live we did everything we could to make it worthwhile engaging live. There was the opportunity for discussion, for your questions about pi to be answered and of course the Find Pi activities with associated crowd sourcing. In essence the event had all the technicalities of a live television broadcast coupled with the complexities of an online discussion and social media with some crowd sourcing thrown in for good measure.

We threw everything at Pi Day Live to see what worked:

1. The live event
I can’t overstate how compelling delivering a live event was. From the moment we received Tweets showing our live feed on screens in classrooms there was a real feeling that everyone participating was involved in something unique. Marcus started by giving a few shout-outs to some of the schools and individuals who had pre-registered. After the event Marcus discovered that he had many requests for shout-outs from schools via Twitter. I wasn’t expecting Twitter to be such a live channel in this case. Reporting on the changing crowd sourced value of pi was also a compelling aspect of being live.

2. The Find Pi activities
These appeared to be popular and as far as we can tell focused people’s minds during the middle part of the event. We currently have circa 300 results and a value of pi at 3.104. Our expectation was that we would have a few hundred people hitting the Oxford Connect site during the event. On the day we got well over 2000 which choked our server and cut down the number of people who could submit results.

Can you see when our server got so busy it couldn't even send data to our logging software? :)

Can you see when our server got so busy it couldn’t even send data to our logging software? 🙂

3. The discussion – responding to questions
This aspect of the event went less well, we didn’t receive many questions and the discussions in Blackboard Collaborate were relatively quiet. I think we threw too much at the participants who were happy to watch, Tweet or get on with the Find Pi activities. We also split people’s attention by leaving Marcus on screen commentating on his own Buffon’s Needle experiment during the Find Pi section of the event. I suspect that some people had gone into sit-back-and-watch mode which we need to balance with the interactive elements. We had provided more than one mode of engagement in parallel which isn’t ideal but was a side effect of our piloting approach.

My View of Pi Day Live

My View of Pi Day Live

Reflecting on the event I’m thinking there are probably discursive and an activity focused versions of Oxford Connect events. It’s also clear that Twitter or something as ‘light touch’ as Twitter can be enough of a ‘conversational’ channel to sustain live engagement when everyone is also running their own experiments and uploading results. I’m hoping that we can run similar event for other departments here at Oxford in the future. We are also talking about using the live format as an anchor for a quasi-open online version of our department’s face-to-face day schools. Overall I’m pleased with how the pilot ran, we learnt a lot and the technology held up well. We got plenty of positive feedback and some people disappointed they couldn’t get to the Oxford Connect webpage as our server tried to keep-up. The complexities of going out live were more than outweighed by the buzz and sense of connection that came with it. I’m confident that we can run a more streamlined version of Pi Day Live for other disciplines which is less risky while increasing the level of engagement for those who get involved live. Success in terms of ‘massive’ numbers is a dangerous thing though, especially for live events – we are going to need a bigger server…

MOOC: Self-Service Education?

Monday, February 18th, 2013

As the IT director for Sainsburys pointed out at BETT a couple of weeks ago ‘self-service’ caused a revolution in retail during the 20th century. It allowed for greater choice, efficiency and of course scale. It put the ‘super’ in supermarket in the same way that the web has put the (potential) ‘massive’ into MOOC.

At first glance the current wave of publicity-garnering MOOCs appear to be the equivalent of self-service education. Big out-of-town locations for education with an increasing range of products that you are free to browse at leisure.

Pick a product and pay for accreditation as you pass through the tills…

Lost in the supermarket


This perhaps is a little disingenuous though as there is more effort required than simply putting a course in your basket to gain validation. Automated testing and peer assessment are legitimate ways of assessing levels of knowledge and, if properly designed, increasing understanding. This is the real challenge for MOOCs, as it is for any course; how can we encourage students to think? How do we best mix the ingredients we have available to increase the chances that those engaging with our courses will finish them with *both* increased knowledge and increased understanding? – I hope we can all agree that teaching with a view to increasing understanding is a large part of what higher education institutions are for(?)

I have heard teaching described as ‘what you have to do because there are more of them than there are of you’, it’s inherently about dealing with scale. In this sense many of the pedagogical challenges faced by the designers of MOOCs are the same as those to be found in face-to-face or non-massive courses. The danger though is that xMOOC style self-service education favours those who already equipped with the intellectual and academic techniques required to interrogate a subject. How do we encourage those who don’t have the necessary higher-education ‘literacies’ to wade through swathes of video lectures and online resources? One answer is already hiding in the MOOC format: the ‘event’.

MOOCs generally have a start and finish date which makes them a form of slow-burn event. Even though the web has an always-on, always-connected, constant-flow paradigm it is still largely event driven. We are drawn to specific moments in time which act as way-points in the ceaseless river of information and social noise. MOOCs are useful island in this river with a beginning, middle and end, a simple narrative we can organise around and hopefully contribute to even if we don’t choose to listen to the whole story. The principle of the event can be taken further though as I believe it is highly compelling, especially in an online context. This is what I’m focusing on with the new Oxford Connect format.

Educators and technologists have become adept at putting-the-curriculum-online but we have yet to master the nuances of the live event outside of the lecture theatre. Pi Day Live, the pilot event for Oxford Connect, is designed to be a moment in time where hundreds of participants gather online to take part in collective activity. It will be highly ‘Evented’ (an idea originally attached to ‘virtual worlds’ but which is broadly applicable), encouraging participants to be as Resident as possible for a short period. My hope is that in time this live format will become a valuable way of communicating ideas, concepts and research from Oxford. I envisage this format being used as part of large-scale online courses, incorporating the fellowship of live events to support communities of learners and to act as milestones in a larger pedagogical structure.

Perhaps the live event is what is missing from xMOOCs and the expertise of the connectivists is what’s needed to counter a self-service mentality which disenfranchises those without with the literacies required to go-it-alone in online learning?


Live + Open + Online + Interactive = Pi Day Live

Friday, February 8th, 2013

On 14 March at 1.59pm GMT, Professor Marcus du Sautoy will host Pi Day Live, a free interactive online event that is open to all. The event is a hands-on exploration of pi, the number which has fascinated mathematicians throughout the ages.

Marcus du Sautoy and the Pi Day Live logo

This event has been designed by TALL and we’re pretty excited about it because:

1. It’s genuinely interactive. Participants will work together online to calculate pi using techniques from the pre-computer age. We want to discover if we can collectively calculate pi to one, two, three or more, decimal places using tools no more sophisticated than marbles, sticks and string.

2. It’s open. Just as long as your computer can run YouTube, (and your timezone doesn’t mean you’ll be up past your bedtime), you can take part.

3. It’s scalable. There’s no predicting how many people will join us on the day. There is an element of registration involved which will give us a rough idea in the run up to 14 March but we’ve designed an engagement model that will scale in response to the level of participation we get on the day.

Visit to find out more and to participate. Get live updates and all the pi facts you could ever want via Twitter  and Facebook.

Pi *Day* (?)

Mathematicians (and the American House of Representatives) have christened 14 March Pi Day because the date, when written in the US date format, is 3.14. Add the 1.59pm time of the Pi Day Live experiment and you get 3.14159, or pi at around the accuracy Archimedes calculated it over 2000 years ago using simple geometry.

Twitter Sprezzatura

Friday, October 5th, 2012

Deconstructing approaches to Social Media is similar in character to explaining why a joke is funny. It’s a form of analysis that sucks the life out of an activity which is more ‘art’ than ‘science’, something which is performative not administrative. Personally I don’t know why any Social Media policy should say more than ‘Be a person not an institution’ and ‘Don’t Tweet/post after you have been to the pub’. However, whether formalised or not, it would be dishonest to pretend we don’t have Social Media strategies. Not unlike stand-up comedy a guiding principle where the professional and Social Media converge is to appear to be speaking as if the thoughts had just occurred to you. The Not-Quite-Real-Time nature of most Social Media gives us all the chance to look clever/witty. Thanks to @nosnilwar my new favourite word is Sprezzatura, an approach/characteristic which all of the people I know who are a great ‘success’ in Social Media share. If you look like you are trying you are doing it wrong…


CC- Darkroom Productions

Sara Tindall ran our Social Media activities during the Maths in the City project, this included running the @mathsinthecity Twitter feed. As part of reflecting on the project I asked Sara to muse on her Tweeting and give a few examples. We hope this mini-qualitative review of our Social Media activity will be of interest to those of you embarking on project-based or representing-an-institution style Tweeting and that we haven’t spoilt the childlike magic of Social Media too much. 🙂   David White (Creative Director for Maths in The City)


My most popular tweet

My most popular tweet hit the bullseye as far as pure mathematicians were concerned. It got retweeted 205 times. The tweet was about a cartoon, which was originally tweeted by Tim Harford. I repurposed his tweet to make it about maths. Whereas Tim was retweeted 22 times, my tweet was retweeted 205 times. Despite having fewer followers (2k+ to his 50k+), my tweet had the further reach because I am funnier than Tim. I have a bunch of followers who could really relate to the cartoon.

An example of banter

A tweet starts as a maths challenge and ends up making an appalling play on (French) wordsChristian Perfect regularly communicates with me on Twitter, so I am able to be more direct in my humour with him. When Colin Beveridge joined the conversation, the ever-versatile emoticon helped to show I wasn’t trying to be confrontational.

An example of interaction/conversation

I started following The Quadratic Girl simply because her self-description is a clever pun using maths. She occasionally tweets about maths. When she tweeted “I will take a photo of all my maths books <3”, this is how I responded. This resulted in a nice geek out over books. Making these sorts of connections is the point of social media – people just want to have fun.

Interactions with project participants

The core activity of Maths in the City is mathematical walking tours of London and Oxford. People who have been on/are about to go on these tours get in touch via Twitter from time to time. Usually it’s to say thank you, although sometimes they want to make sure that the weather won’t stop the tour. There was one time where a tour participant got lost. In the end he couldn’t find the group but he was able to follow the tour using materials downloaded from our website.

It’s a great feeling when I see people connecting with the project both online and face to face because it tells me we must be communicating something that people want to hear.

Examples of how Twitter supported the face to face part of our project

Our mathematical walking tours got fully booked within around 48 hours of announcing them on Twitter. Here are some of the ways tour dates were announced:

And here is an example of how I used Twitter to fill tour spaces that have become free due to cancellation. This was tweeted two days before the tour date and the places were filled within a couple of hours.

An example of how to keep your Twitter feed relevant

Tweeting outside of office hours and commenting on national events are a good way to look human. Here’s one from the Olympics. Everybody likes a little joke at the expense of the Australians…

And now for something purely self-serving…

I took Maths Dave on holiday with me and shared this snap on Facebook. That’s right, you’re looking at the space shuttle Discovery, in the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA. Oh yeah.


Leading a walking tour – a step by step guide

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

There are many facets to the Maths in the City projectpublic engagement, connecting through social media and working with volunteers. The central goal of the project was to develop and lead mathematical walking tours of the ‘city’ – we wanted to tell the stories of the maths in the city to as wide a range of people as possible.

The people telling these stories were mathematics students, many of whom had no public speaking, science communication or teaching experience at the start of the project.  They didn’t even necessarily have experience in the areas of mathematics they were communicating but what these students did have was enormous enthusiasm about their subject and for the Maths in the City project.

In order to make the walking tours a success we had to harness that enthusiasm and make it as simple as possible to lead the tours. We found that there are four steps to designing walking tours that are simple to lead:

1. Take care of the practicalities

Minimise the amount of walking, traffic hassles

We quickly realised that if we were to have enough time for discussion at different stops on the tour we weren’t going to be able to walk very far.   It seems that the walking pace of a group of people exponentially slows down with the size of the group (NB – this may not be a mathematically rigorous conclusion!)

Keep an eye on your group size

We also found that the ideal size of a group on the tour was around 15 people.  The tours still worked well with larger and smaller sizes (we ran tours for 4-30 people) but 15 meant that everyone could participate without feeling constantly in the spotlight.

The best location to talk about a site isn’t always where the site actually is

The locations for the sites on a tour are an exercise in compromise. You need space available for a group of people to gather, the levels of background noise need to be taken into consideration, and you need to factor in the distance between the previous and the next stops on the tour.  For example our site about the Gherkin in London is on the opposite side of the river to the building, which allows the group to have a view of the skyline and has the space to build structures out of garden canes.  Similarly, our site for the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford often ends up being outside the adjacent building due to space available on the busy pavement.

2. Make the maths accessible

Revealing the depth of simple ideas

We wanted our tours to be accessible to as wide a range of people as possible: grandchildren to grandparents, maths graduates to maths phobics, teachers and interested bystanders.  Simple concepts, such as the strength of triangles or the efficiency of hexagons, proved enticing to people who might initially think maths is daunting.  Guides then explored the deeper mathematical consequences of these simple ideas or wider applications, which provided interest for the more mathematically experienced.

A model that demonstrates the properties of caternary curves

“On the occasions when it started out too simplistic, the guides were happy to answer deeper questions.”

Hands-on demonstrations can make complex ideas more concrete

This didn’t mean that we shied away from sophisticated mathematics.  We found that you could make concepts like graph theory, topology, symmetry and group theory more down-to-earth by involving the group in demonstrations that illustrated and explored the ideas.

A demonstration about GPS using chalk and string

“The practical demonstrations made the concepts easy to understand”

3. Make the communication easy

Telling stories

The most important thing for us to remember has been that we are telling stories, stories that just happen to be about maths. It helped to emphasise that these stories should have a beginning (often pointing out the link to the location), a middle (revealing the maths) and an end (perhaps a surprising demonstration or revealing the maths in a wider context). We particularly tried to provide a final sentence that would provide a punchy and conclusive end to the story, enabling the guide to wrap up that site and move onto the next.

Crib sheets

Some of the stories involved maths concepts set in a historical or modern context and a number of hands-on demonstrations using multiple props.  We quickly discovered that for these more complicated sites it helped to provide a crib sheet at the end of the notes highlighting how to weave together the main points of the story with the demonstrations.

Questions and conversations

We asked our guides to think of the tours as conversations.  We suggested lots of questions in the tour notes that guides could ask to engage the group and they encouraged people to ask them questions too. We found this advice from our EPSRC mentor about asking and encouraging questions very useful:

  • Start with easy questions that anyone could answer (eg. what shapes/patterns can you see on this building?) and build up questions in layers of understanding.
  • Give people time to think and respond, don’t be worried by silence, it’s just a little thinking time.
  • When someone answers a questions, clearly repeat their answer.  This makes sure that everyone has heard the answer and is a nice affirmative response for the person concerned.  It also is an opportunity for you to use the language they have supplied, helping you establish the group’s vocabulary and level of understanding and building from there.

People on the tour often had information about sites that we didn’t know or their questions and interests that meant the story we told on our walking tours was different every time.  The tour notes were just a suggestion and guides were encouraged to tell the stories their own way and respond to the interests of the group.

 4. It’s personal

Marcus du Sautoy discussing maths with tour guides outside the Tate Modern

“The tour guides were fantastic!”
“ I’m appreciating the things around us in a different way, looking afresh at things.”

In the end it was our tour guides, as much as our content, that made the project such a success.  This personal interaction with mathematicians, both on the walking tours and through our social media, has had as strong an impact on our audience as the mathematical stories we told.  For many tour participants meeting the maths students who led the tours and hearing about their personal journeys in maths has created a lasting image of mathematicians as creative, entertaining, passionate and ordinary people.  We hope we have helped people see mathematics, as well as the city, in a new light.


This post was written by Rachel Thomas, Public Engagement Officer for Maths in the City, and is part of a series of posts that discuss our approaches to public engagement.


Let them eat cake: thoughts on managing volunteers

Friday, September 28th, 2012

Over the last two years we have had the pleasure of working with a wonderful group of students from the University of Oxford on the Maths in the City project.  In fact, as you will have no doubt realised from our previous posts about the project, these student volunteers have been vital to the success of the project.  Over the last two years they have:

  • come on maths hunts in London and Oxford to take pictures and get ideas for mathematical sites;
M3 think about examples of maths in the city of London

“If you have other students who can present like these two, mathematics outreach is in good hands.”

  •  created mathematical sites as examples for a public competition;
  • brainstormed new ideas for the tours and developed existing ideas further in workshops;
  • helped out at a competition event, engaging with visitors and assisting with the inaugural the tours;
  • trained as guides, learning storytelling and communication skills as well as the content of the tours;
  • lead 35 tours (reaching around 450 people): 31 for the general public, 3 for school groups, one for university students and one for university alumni;
  • provided feedback on tours, suggesting improvements in their design and content;
  • and used social media to promote the project and interact with the growing community, enabling us to reach an audience of over 2,000 people on Twitter and around 500 people on Facebook (this online community meant many tours were filled within days of being announced through our website and social media).
Testing the strength of a structure with books

“The tour guides were absolutely delightful – if the two young presenters find mathematics too restricting, a life on the stage is clearly an option :)”

We were very fortunate to be able to build on the success of M3, the group of volunteers founded by Marcus du Sautoy to visit schools and science festivals promoting mathematics.  The core group of these students that were actively involved in Maths in the City grew from eight students in 2010 to around twenty in 2011.

In order to make the most of the time and enthusiasm of these volunteers, we discovered it was important to keep the following things in mind over the course of our project:

  • Availability: We had to accommodate their schedules and manage expectations of how much time they could contribute during busy periods in the university calendar (eg. most were busy with exams in Trinity (summer) term) and holidays.
  • Travel costs: It’s not fair to expect students to pay for travel between cities for all elements of the project (workshops, training, as well as the tours themselves).  This restricts access to the project for some potential volunteers.
  • Reminders: The students are very reliable but they do have busy lives.  We put in place a system of reminders, checking they were aware of upcoming events they were involved with (say a fortnight before and again a few days before), sending all necessary information (eg. meeting place, time, expected participants, tasks for the day).
  • Backup system: It’s good to build in some redundancy, for example having three volunteers for each tour if you really only need two so it doesn’t matter if someone drops out but this wasn’t always possible.  We were lucky enough to have paid staff who were always available to back students up if one of them was unable to run the tour.
  • Use their strengths: The students were very happy to work hard in the workshops and other events but didn’t necessarily have time between events to work individually on the project.  We focussed on priming them for a workshop or event with material they could use on the day but designing the workshop so it didn’t matter if they hadn’t been able to read the material beforehand.  We realised their strength was generating ideas in a workshop, which the project team then developed into full resources that the students would go on to use on the tours.
Two people tied together in a demonstration about topography

“The tour guides did a wonderful job at putting across often complex mathematical concepts in simple straightforward language”

Some of the previous points are specific to a project that requires volunteers to travel to and run events.  We’ve learned, however, that there are some factors that would help any volunteer-based project succeed.  Here are our top tips for making the most of your volunteers…

  • Emphasise what they will get out of the project: As well as asking them to help us we also made it clear what they would gain from their involvement – communication skills, experience in public engagement and science communication and an excellent addition to their CV.
  • Have them involved from the ground up: Some of the students have been involved in the project from the very first meeting.  We have tried to involve them in as many aspects as possible and kept them informed of how the project as a whole was developing, as well as the parts they were involved in.  Not only did this build their expertise, which was a great benefit for their and other student’s involvement in the project, but it also created a sense of ownership of the project for the group of volunteers.
  • Give them ownership: We fully supported their growing sense of ownership.  They we acknowledged at all times, on all material, as being a core part of the project, we asked for, and responded to, their feedback.
  • Let them jump in at the deep end:  After giving them initial training, we made sure they felt fully supported.  For example the week before the initial run of pilot tours a team member and the kit were available every afternoon for practice runs.  We also gave them the project mobile and help numbers to call so they felt like they had backup on the day.  Then the project team essentially stepped back and handed the responsibility over to them – they lead the tours themselves with very little assistance from the project team.  Expecting the best of them seemed to give the students confidence which grew each time they worked face-to-face with the public.
  • Use peer to peer teaching: After initial training workshops, the best way of training new guides has been to team them up with an experienced guide and learn from them on the job.  Not only has this meant we can continue to deliver tours while taking on new guides, it seemed to give both the experienced and inexperienced guides confidence in their abilities.
  • Have a variety of involvement: Students could volunteer at any time during the project, they could attend and contribute to any of the workshops and they could volunteer to lead or just assist on tours or to join our online team.  This meant that people could be involved in whatever way felt most comfortable for them and for whatever time they could contribute.  And often once someone was involved in one aspect (say attending workshops or assisting on tours) they gained the confidence to participate in other ways.
  • Say thank you: We regularly acknowledged, individually and as a group, the efforts of the volunteers involved.
  • Let them eat cake: We provided snacks and drinks at workshops and meetings wherever possible.  We also covered their lunch on the days they ran tours (they could claim up to £8 in expenses). Although this might seem a frivolous thing to include in a budget this was an important part in the success of our volunteer team.  It encouraged people to come to meetings, particularly when they ran over lunchtime or in the evenings.  Providing snacks and drinks also creates a positive atmosphere around the project as it is a physical manifestation of our respect for the volunteers and a recognition of their efforts and commitment to the project.  We couldn’t have done it without them.

I hope you found this helpful. If you did or think we’ve missed anything, tell us by commenting below or dropping us a line on Facebook and Twitter.

This is part of a series of blog posts which discuss our approaches to public engagement on the topics of; teaching/public delivery of complex material, what makes the public participate in public engagement initiatives and using social media for public engagement. There’s also an intro post that gives an overview of the Maths in the City project.

This post was written by Rachel Thomas, Public Engagement Officer for Maths in the City.

Seven secrets to successful public engagement via social media (plus a diagram)

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

The Maths in the City is a public engagement project that, in short, went really well. There are many factors that contributed to its success and in this post I shall share the secrets behind our effective public engagement through social media.

Diagram time!

The broadcast approach

The broadcast approach

This is the classic institutional mindset, all forms of engagement  being ‘broadcast’ to a public ‘out-there’ from behind institutional lines.



The conversational approach

Our approach was de-centralised and more conversational. The offline activities promoted online  ways to engage and vice-versa. This created a virtuous circle and a kind of many-to-many relationship between all of our activities. This was supported by a project team with overlapping skills and responsibilities (i.e. we all moved ideas and items around the loop). Key to this approach was constantly ‘drawing-in’/responding to opinions and artefacts from the public and the co-production of materials with our group of student tour-guides.  This we felt was a more honest form of engagement and in keeping with the conversational tone of social-media.

This is how we applied our approach (yes, there are seven points):

1) Tone. I went for a fun, slightly irreverent tone while also expressing a wonder for the beauty of mathematics. I adopted this tone based on what I observed to be the majority tone adopted by maths communities on Facebook and Twitter.

2) Content. I only had a basic background in mathematics. However, I found that the ability to find funny and interesting material was more important than depth of knowledge.

Our most popular tweet

This tweet really caught the pure mathematician zeitgeist… 205 retweets! It linked to this cartoon:

In the first year I relied on posts/tweets from others in the maths community, pictures of the project mascot (Maths Dave) and, I am not too proud to admit, Google searches. In the second year of the project, a group of student volunteers got involved and they added a layer of further interest by setting puzzles and teasers for people to solve.

3) Message. The majority of tweets and posts communicated the joy of mathematics and included a push to the project website when relevant. We found that this maintained a sense of community and presence, which in turn led to a swift response to any project-specific news and calls to action.

4) Frequency. In the first year of the project, I tweeted three times a day and posted on Facebook every 1-2 days. Initially, I set aside 15 minutes every morning, lunchtime and afternoon in which to tweet/post content. This time got less as I identified reliable sources for content. In the second year, I visited the project Twitter feed and Facebook page just once a day as student volunteers contributed to content.

5) Critical mass. We wanted to get our follower numbers on Twitter into the hundreds and ‘likes’ of our Facebook page to 100 as soon as possible so that we could get the flow of communication going. In the first month of launching our Twitter feed and Facebook page, friends of the project who had significant followers of their own were asked to publicise the project and encourage their followers to follow/’like’ Maths in the City. They were happy to do so because they were asked by people whom they respected and we had already placed strong content in our Twitter feed/Facebook page.

6) Volunteers. Volunteer students from the University of Oxford were an important part of the project deliverables and we had a pool of talented and motivated students who were passionate about sharing their love of maths with the public. Some of them did not have time to participate in the face to face aspects of the project so our social media channels provided them with a volunteering opportunity that fitted in with their study commitments. Those who joined the online public engagement team helped to double follower numbers in the second year of the project.

Student volunteers working on content for Twitter and Facebook

We meet in the pub because there is free wifi. There’s no other reason. Now what’s the budget code for a pint of bitter?

They could either use the project Twitter account or their own and  if using the project account, they followed some simple guidelines regarding the tone, message and purpose of their activity.  Becoming the voice of the project or interacting with the project under their own accounts seemed to contribute to the volunteers’ sense of ownership of the project.

7)Sustainability. We put a lot of thought into making sure Maths in the City had a life after the end of the project. The student volunteers who have been an integral part of this project are part of Marcus’ Marvellous Mathemagicians, a public engagement team run by the University of Oxford’s maths department. Their social media networks are small so the project Twitter feed and Facebook page will be repurposed so that they can take on the networks established by the project to support their own public engagement activities.


So that’s how we did public engagement through social media. This is part of a series of blog posts which discuss our approaches to public engagement on the topics of; teaching/public delivery of complex material, what makes the public participate in public engagement initiatives and the management/encouragement of volunteers. There’s even an intro post that gives an excellent overview of the Maths in the City project. (Dave White made me say that.) If you find any of these posts useful, let us know by commenting below or dropping us a line on Facebook and Twitter.

Engage! (Please)

Friday, September 21st, 2012

To paraphrase Dave White in the first blog post in this series about the Maths in the City project, engaging the public is a delicate business, particularly when you want meaningful levels of involvement.

Getting involved in Maths in the City takes effort. We ran mathematical walking tours in the snow, hail and pouring rain and in most of these tours, everyone who booked turned up. Creating an example of maths in the city on our website requires registration and then at least ten minutes to post a picture and write about it. The quality of some of the examples suggest that far more time than this has been invested. We are in regular communication with followers/fans on Twitter and Facebook who don’t know the names and faces of the people behind the tweets and posts.

A tour happening in the rain

“Exceeded my expectations! The tour was interesting, exciting and FUN, even in the pouring rain! Thank you”

So why are all these people so keen to participate? Here are our top four reasons.

1. Everybody loves a competition
We launched Maths in the City on an unsuspecting world by announcing a competition. We offered serious prizes and the quality of entries were superb. To see a list of winners and what they won, visit this page on the Maths in the City website. The competition is responsible for 60% of the examples of maths in the city on this site.

Winners and runners up included a man from Ireland, a group from Spain and a young lady from Hong Kong. Despite the fact that we could not pay for travel, all winners and runners up attended an award day at Oxford except for the girl from Hong Kong, who sent a video message. Pictures from the award day are available on Flickr.

The winners of the Maths in the City competition, with Marcus du Sautoy

The winners of the Maths in the City competition, with Marcus du Sautoy

2. Everybody loves a Dave
Maths in the City has a mascot, named Maths Dave. Placed as a resource on the project website as piece of whimsical fun, the cult of Maths Dave quickly grew, as evidenced in the Maths Dave forum. (Get your own Maths Dave here.)

One maths teacher from Walthamstow School for Girls used Maths Dave in her lessons; her class did such a great job with their Maths Daves and Davinas that the teacher and two students were invited to the competition award day to receive a special prize on behalf of the class. A year later we had the pleasure of taking 60 girls from the school on our London maths tour.

The Maths Daves and Davinas created by the year 1 maths class from Walthamstow School for Girls

The Maths Daves and Davinas created by the year 1 maths class from Walthamstow School for Girls

3. Everybody loves seeing their homework on the fridge door
The Maths in the City project is produced and managed by us lot at TALL. We also design online courses, including The Number Mysteries, which is based on a book written by Marcus du Sautoy of the same title. This course includes an assignment option in which students write an example of maths in the city, which they can add to once it has been marked. Here is an example on Umhlanga Pier, written by a South African student. Students of the Number Mysteries course appear to enjoy the opportunity to share their work in a public place and the project benefits from a steady stream of high quality examples of maths in the city from around the world.

Add your mathematical stories to

Add your mathematical stories to

4. Everybody loves a delightful and articulate student who is passionate about their subject
The lifeblood of this project has been the student volunteers who have helped to design the walking tours, lead the walking tours and engage with the public through our social media channels. A journalist from the Oxford Times was so charmed by one of our volunteers that I think he fell a little bit in love. Read his article ‘Oxford by numbers’ and judge for yourself.

Two of our fabulous maths walking tour guides

“I would like to thank our guide for making the mathematical concepts very clear, and the tour very enjoyable”


These are our top four reasons why we got meaningful engagement with the public. Do you have other reasons that have come from your experience in public engagement? Please tell us by  commenting below or by dropping us a line on Facebook and Twitter.

(And when you’ve done that, keep your eyes peeled for the rest in our series of posts on our approaches to public engagement. Topics to come are; teaching/public delivery of complex material, community facilitation/the use of social media and the management/encouragement of volunteers. We’ll be announcing them on Facebook and Twitter.)

Who’s excited about maths?

Monday, September 17th, 2012

For the last two years I have been the Creative Director of the ‘Maths in the City’ project. At the helm was Marcus du Sautoy, that maths guy from the TV and Radio who also happens to be a member of my Continuing Education department here at Oxford and the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. The idea for the project came from discussions Marcus had with secondary schools in London. The overall aim being to ‘engage’ the public with maths by demonstrating how the science of numbers is integral to the urban environments most of us inhabit. The 2 minute video below gives a flavour of what it’s all about.

Funded by the EPSRC (who fielded an excellent and experienced mentor for the project)  via a public engagement grant the project ran a series of walking tours around Oxford and London which anyone could attend for free. The tours were highly interactive (string, chalk, sweets, springs, sticks, marbles etc.) and designed to interest people of all ages with potentially a very basic understanding of maths. The guides for the tours were all maths students drawn from Marcus’ cabal here at the university called M3. An important aspect of the project was giving these students the opportunity to practice their public speaking skills at the sharp end of maths-communication i.e. in a street with a group of strangers that have  random levels of subject understanding. To support and promote the tours we built a nifty website. Nifty because it allows anyone in the world to create a maths ‘site’ and, if they so desire, a tour of their own. The M3 group used the site to help author our main tours of Oxford and London. It also gave us an opportunity to run a competition to increase the visibility of the project and to help populate the website with maths from around the world.

The officially funded part of the project is coming to a close but I’m happy to say that the M3 group will continue to run and develop the tours. Overall the project was a great success:

  • over 2500 people engaging with us via social media
  • over 460 people attended mathematical walking tours of Oxford and London
  • over 130 examples of ‘maths in the city’, from around the world, posted on, the vast majority from members of the general public.

Having a world renown mathematician and broadcaster as a figurehead certainly helped promote Maths in the City but the project team who were all assigned 1.5 days a week or less were the real behind-the-scenes workers: designing the details of the tours, putting together the website, encouraging an online community, training the tour-guide students and generally dealing with all the nuts-and-bolts involved in running public walking tours. What I am most proud of is that we designed multiple ways to engage with the project, for example:

  • To promote the project and to give it a ‘friendly’ face (we don’t underestimate how daunting contributing to an Oxford University project might be for some) we provided cut-out-and-keep template of our logo/mascot ‘Maths Dave’. Much to our delight people began to submit photos of their very own versions of Maths Dave.
Maths Daves' in Turkey

Maths Dave’s in Turkey

  • People could submit a mathematical site from their city. These ranged from elementary maths such as this site on triangles (one of our competition winners) through to sites such as the ‘Squeaking Labyrinth’ (which is certainly beyond me) and everything in between.
  • The tour ‘sites’ were essentially neat chunks of teaching material (all openly licensed as ‘Open Educational Resources’) which all included great hands-on activities. The project used the tour sites to give ‘stationary’ walking tours or ‘talks’ as they are normally known as part of public lecture series i.e. you don’t have to take the walk to get the maths. One of the most widely appropriated was the Sheldonian Roof site which inspired a whole morning of teaching at one secondary school culminating in this spectacular model.

No glue was used!

  • If balancing a ridiculous amount of rulers across desks is not for you then there was always the geeky banter to enjoy over on our Twitter stream and Facebook page or the opportunity to read about the project in one of our many write-ups including the New Scientist.
  • The hub of the project’s activity was of course the physical tours themselves. I went on a few to check everything was running smoothly and remember a six year old and his older brother happily helping to make triangles, rectangles and hexagons with a loop of string in one of the quads of St. Johns college while the adults discussed the shapes which most efficiently tessellate on a two dimensional plane.

A maths student leads a London tour across Millennium bridge with the aid of Maths Dave on a stick.

Engaging the public both online and offline is a delicate business especially when your tour-guide group  is made-up of volunteers new to public speaking, trying to complete Oxford degrees and acting as the public face to an institution which has very refined views on ‘reputation’ and ‘credibility’. Instead of writing a dusty report on the project which would end its days in unread pdf purgatory on the outskirts of a funding council website we have chosen to write a series of blog post which discuss our approaches to public engagement on the topics of; teaching/public delivery of complex material, what makes the public participate in public engagement initiatives, community facilitation/the use of social media and the management/encouragement of volunteers. Watch @daveowhite or @mathsinthecity as we release the posts over the next few weeks. I hope they will be insightful for those of you considering public engagement projects.