Mathematics is often perceived as a dull, uninteresting and unpopular subject. It is socially acceptable to say in public that one is 'no good' at mathematics, and the subject is often undervalued or disparaged in the media by public figures.
Many existing initiatives aim to improve the public image of mathematics in schools, through teaching and in the media. However, the majority of the population is not 'reached' by books, mathematics lectures and programmes on elite radio stations and TV channels.
On the other hand mathematicians often share 'chestnuts' of surprising and beautiful mathematics at professional gatherings. Mathematicians cannot be that different from everyone else in the world, so there must be a way of appreciating the beauty and the joy of mathematics and its relationship to the physical world before undertaking serious study of maths.
Buskers meet the same disinterested public that mathematicians are familiar with. Thus, the primary focus of Maths Busking is to develop engaging, innately entertaining mathematics routines that capture the audience whatever their mathematical background. Through this, Maths Busking conveys genuine mathematical content at the core of the routine, not tacked on at the end. When people walk away from seeing Maths Busking, they should have a better appreciation of mathematics, feel that they engaged with the subject, and have ways to develop further their mathematical curiosity.
The routines developed capture the audience through highly entertaining programmes, and at a mathematical level require only curiosity and the basics of numeracy.
Maths Busking focuses heavily on the training of performers.
From informal consultation with the mathematics community we understand that mathematics is under-represented in science fairs and festivals. We wish to create a culture amongst mathematics specialists of regularly going out and 'informally' communicating mathematics. We are now a regular feature at British science festivals.
We focused on taking mathematics 'items' that are surprising and lend themselves to public demonstration. This form of maths communication is innovative as it does not assume any basic level of interest or ability in mathematics; all that is required is an innate curiosity and a desire to be entertained.
Aware that there are few mathematicians known to be performers outside the maths circle (the exclusive group includes Arthur Benjamin, see TED) the project recruited and trained individuals and supported them to perform in a variety of events with differing levels of 'hostility' - from the arranged audiences of school groups at science fairs, to the streets of London side-by-side professional street performers.
The training days are extremely popular, especially with teachers seeking new ideas on how to engage disaffected pupils and to offer varied learning styles. Lecturers tell us the training day makes them reevaluate how they prepare a lecture and not taking their audience for granted.
Trainers include Ken Farquhar (Dr Ken, science busker), Steve Humble (Dr Maths, maths trails), Matt Parker (Stand-up Maths, comedian and maths communicator), David Price (busking expert, Science Made Simple, Joshua Award in Science Communication 2010) and Sara Santos (ex-Royal Institution of Great Britain, speaker trainer).
We crystallised the fundamentals of the project in the form of 'The Axioms of Maths Busking':
1. Maths Busking is busking – we must not forget that we are buskers, not teachers; thus Maths Busking is not an outdoor maths lesson, buskers do not explain the mathematics during the show as it is a show.
1.1 We assume the crowd is initially passive.
1.2 The routines must suit a crowd that drops in and out.
1.3 The routines must be engaging, keep their public’s attention and be interesting.
1.3.1 The performance must not alienate the audience.
2. Maths is the gimmick – the exciting part of each show must always be mathematical, there is no space for 'sleight of hand' or trickery.
3. Maths to take away – there is something to take away for anyone, from the person whose perception of maths was challenged by seeing others having fun with the performers wearing yellow tops emblazoned with the words 'maths' and 'busking', to the person who heard about geometry and binary numbers, not to mention the one that went home and looked up the maths on our website.
At Maths Busking shows the explanations of the maths come from the audience. The team refers to the website http://mathsbusking.com for further information on the mathematics.
Next to 200 people registered to train for Maths Busking over 11 training days. A total of 43 performance days were delivered by about 20 performers.
One teacher in Manchester, after training with us worked with a group of her students on Maths Busking routines; the students are now regular performers. It seems that Maths Busking is attracting more people into communicating mathematics. Being part of the team offers an initiation into the world of maths communication.
We have received a great deal of media coverage including from the BBC and The Guardian (a major british newspaper), Globe and Mail (a Canadian newspaper) and the US radio station NPR.
Sara Santos was given the Portuguese 'Seed of Science 2011' award in the area of communication for her work on Maths Busking. The award will be handed out by the Portuguese Science Minister at a Gala dinner in May 2011.
The weblogs of http://mathsbusking.com day by day shows an increase in visitors after a performance or a media appearance. We continue to evaluate our work with observations of performances, questionnaires and snapshot interviews of audience members. One participant said:
“Maths Busking? It was really cool. It's very exciting. I mean, not being a maths person, I was never very good at maths at school but that was quite fun and I can see how it would engage people.”
One of the children completing a questionnaire when asked:
“Do you think this activity has changed your attitude to maths?”
answered: “Yes. There is a fun side and a boring side”.