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Talented young mathematicians get the measure of Lancaster

Making a tensegrity Making a tensegrity

Thirty of the UK's most talented young mathematicians came to Lancaster last week for a 4-day residential Headstart summer school, funded by the Engineering Development Trust.

The theme of the week was "Exploring Shape and Space" and activities included lectures by Lancaster pure mathematicians, hands-on mini-projects and a long group project.

A particular highlight was an outdoor activity, measuring various aspects of the university campus using only basic equipment. The students had to estimate the height of Bowland Tower, the speed of the university wind turbine and the surface area of Lake Carter, among others.

Topics explored in the projects included Penrose tilings, fractals and rigidity of frameworks. The latter is a particular specialism in the department, with a group of researchers led by Professor Stephen Power studying questions of when various bar and joint shapes are rigid or not. This area has many applications to industry and an industrial collaborator of the group, Dr John Owen of Siemens, came to talk to the participants about how this research is important for computer-aided design.

Another related topic is tensegrity structures, made from bars and extensible cables - or elastic bands, as they are better known. Guided by Dr Bernd Schulze, the students made some tensegrity structures of their own, as pictured.

The students were very positive about their experience, one describing their participation as

"Very enjoyable and very educational, a worthwhile course that I greatly enjoyed."

and another saying that they

"[r]eally enjoyed the course, made some good friends to spend time with and also to work with. Very interesting course content and activities that also included exploring the campus and general university life."

Professor Peter Goodhew, who attended the final day of the summer school as a representative of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said,

"It was delightful to see thirty mathematically-inclined youngsters engaging so successfully with open-ended challenges. Whether they go on to study mathematics or engineering, these highly-motivated Headstart participants will be a crucial part of the society of the future, which faces daunting challenges which can only be overcome with the help of engineers and mathematicians."

The Headstart summer schools also include a Grapevine session, linking academic subjects to careers and industry. Our Grapevine session included the talk by Dr John Owen, and Lisa Mather of the Engineering Development Trust spoke about the Year in Industry scheme. Representing another of the Headstart sponsors, the ESRC, Dr Mike Killian, Leverhulme Visiting Fellow at the Tilda Goldberg Centre at the University of Bedfordshire, spoke about the use of statistics by social workers caring for families of young children who have received organ transplants.

More pictures may be found on the Faculty of Science and Technology and the EDT Headstart Facebook pages.

The summer school was organised by Dr Jan Grabowski, Outreach Officer for the department, and Dr James Groves, with two topics led by colleagues Dr Schulze and Dr Mark MacDonald also. Six student helpers, facilitating discussion in their groups, also made invaluable contributions to the academic work and social activities.

This was the first time the department had run a Headstart summer school, inspired by the success of the Department of Engineering's own Headstart summer school on Sustainable Power Engineering, which ran for a second time this year. This event will also run again in 2014 and applications should be made directly to the Engineering Development Trust via the Headstart web pages (applications open on 1st September 2013).

This event is part of an expanding portfolio of outreach activities organised by the department. Earlier in the year, colleagues ran a Florence Nightingale Day, to encourage girls to study mathematics. In the spring of 2014, we will also launch a series of Royal Institution Secondary Mathematics Masterclasses for talented year 10 and 11 students from the North Lancashire and South Cumbria areas. Our public lecture series celebrating the International Year of Statistics, More than A Number, also continues this autumn.

Tue 06 August 2013