Problem Solved…by Prof. Stephen Heppell

As a school student (and that was a good few years ago now – think flared trousers and too much hair!) I loved mathematics. We were one of just two pilot schools for the then revolutionary School Mathematics Project. SMP focussed on things such as sets, graphs, Boolean logic, non-Cartesian co-ordinate systems, non-decimal number systems, matrices, vectors and more. It was visual, relevant (I still see the world in Venn diagrams!) and exciting. I did well, but then suddenly along came “A” levels; sadly, there was then no “A” level SMP maths, so I was plunged into a mysterious world of calculus, quadratics and algebra in general. It was like waking up in a foreign country, confused.

Years later, when the I first watched a (huge) supercomputer solving a quadratic equation I remember thinking how handy it would have been to access that kind of helpful power, day to day during my “A” levels. Sadly, that supercomputer’s cost ran into millions of pounds, and filled a room when we installed it in Westminster. Actually, it remains the most expensive and largest computer that I ever purchased.

Today however, thanks to the miracle that is captured in Moore’s Law (where Gordon Moore noted that overall processing power for computers doubled every two years or so), much more power than that huge early supercomputer is in today’s sleek phones, tablets, and laptops. As the hardware has got better, the software has got cheaper too! As a big fan of OneNote, it still amazes me that this simple tool has the power to let you type in, and then watch, as OneNote solves mathematical equations using many mathematical functions.

However, this is not about just solving those equations, it is about understanding those solutions and OneNote will helpfully step you through all the stages of a solution. You can repeat, review, vary and solve as often as you like. Repeat until understood. Brilliant!

This all matters of course, because in a world of big data and of algorithms, good mathematicians are scarce. Kids dreaming of a career as a Games designer need good maths. A career in health needs good maths, practically every senior career post, including in schools, needs good mathematics. Now, if I can just build a time machine and take wonderful OneNote back to my “A” level maths paper…

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