Thursday, 25 June 2015

Helping primary school children achieve the best in their SATs

My wife Caroline is a teacher in a primary school near where we live in Buckinghamshire. She teaches year 6, that is to say, ten to eleven year old children.

Now, year 6 is a rather important year in British schools. Children following the National Curriculum in state-funded schools are subject to SATs (standard assessment tests) before they move on to secondary school, and the results of these tests are used to create the dreaded league tables which are supposed to help parents make an informed choice about which school to send their children to. Importantly, the number of pupils can affect the amount of funding a school gets.

Year 6 teachers are therefore under a lot of pressure to help their pupils achieve good SATs results, so extra sessions and booster groups are common. This year Caroline asked if I could go into school to spend a few hours with her top maths set - ones that it had been decided were good enough to be entered for the harder (Level 6) papers.

I'm used to teaching adults on NAG training courses, but this was the first time I'd been into a primary school to teach. It turned out to be good fun! I had four students, all of whom had already passed their "eleven plus" and would be going to grammar school. Topics we covered included straight line graphs, probability and algebra. The kids were enthusiastic, and not too shy. Many of the problems tackled turned out to involve rearrangement of equations, so drilling into them that if you do the same thing to both sides of an equation (with some caveats of course) then the equality still holds seemed quite important.

Whether the short time I spent with them actually made any difference is hard to know, but I really enjoyed the interaction and the children seemed to also. The SATs results are not yet out, and scoring a Level 6 in Mathematics or English is quite difficult (the average 11 year old is expected to achieve Level 4) - so there will be no dishonour in not achieving it, but I'm looking forward to hearing how they get on. And I'm hoping that next year, as part of NAG's Community Outreach Programme, I'll be able to go into school again, and maybe for more hours this time around.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Wilkinson Prize for Numerical Software 2015

by Mike Dewar, Chief Technical Officer, Numerical Algorithms Group (NAG)

James Hardy Wilkinson
NAG, along with Argonne National Laboratory and the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), awards the Wilkinson Prize every four years to the authors of an outstanding piece of numerical software. The prize honours the pioneering work of Dr James Hardy Wilkinson in the field of numerical algorithms, work which had a fundamental impact on NAG in our early years and which still resonates today. The Wilkinson Prize is unique in that it is awarded on the basis of the quality of a piece of software, not just for the mathematics behind it, and the judges consider the documentation and test suites as well as the software itself.  

This year the winners are P.E. Farrell (University of Oxford), S.W. Funke (Simula Research Laboratory), D.A. Ham (Imperial College London), and M.E. Rognes (Simula Research laboratory) for the development of dolfin-adjoint, a package which automatically derives and solves adjoint and tangent linear equations from high-level mathematical specifications of finite element discretisations of partial differential equations. The prize will be presented at ICIAM in Beijing in August, during the SIAM Awards Lunch. 

More details about the Wilkinson Prize and past winners can be found here.