Mention maths to a Scottish schoolchild and they're more likely to groan than to cheer. But a project is hoping to give the subject a much-needed makeover. Is it possible to make maths... cool? That's what James McEnaney hoped to find out when invited on a numeracy roadtrip to a place called MathsCity...

It’s only as I step into the ‘Maths Mobile’ – a worn-red Fiat Duplo that has recently, and apparently somewhat miraculously, survived another MOT– that the thought occurs to me: what if we’ve got nothing to talk about for four hours?

I’m setting off on a maths-themed road-trip to Leeds with Ayliean MacDonald, a maths-themed former teacher turned community educator and content creator, to visit something that she has described as a “the UK’s only maths discovery centre.”

We’ve only spoken once before, when I interviewed her about her role as a Community Mathematician, and things are going to get pretty awkward if we run out of conversation 20 minutes down the road.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried: we see out the morning and early afternoon making our way south, covering topics ranging from high school course structures and marking techniques to gene expression and her 1965 Royal Enfield motorcycle.

There is even time for Ayliean to help me understand logarithms, which I tell her I hated at school despite otherwise finding Higher maths fairly straightforward.

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The problem, she insists, is in the language: we talk about “logarithms” as a noun when it is, in fact, easier to understand the concept as a verb. This, I realise, means that the problem is actually one of expression, and the English teacher inside me is satisfied for the rest of the journey.

Eventually we reach our destination, but it is not the expansive, open-air car park of a bespoke, glass and steel cathedral built to celebrate the wonders of mathematics. Instead, we leave the Maths Mobile behind in a city centre car park and walk into the nearby Trinity Shopping Centre, which is much the same as any other shopping centre, but with one important exception: it is also the home of MathsCity.

The unusual, even underwhelming, location adds to the impact of my first impressions as I step inside, at which point I am transported from a generic, consumerist hot-house to a entirely different world built on learning, engagement and, above all, fun.

It feels like a scaled-down version of the science centres that can be found in both Glasgow and Edinburgh, but with the focus entirely on ‘pure mathematics’. That may sound like a daunting, or painfully boring, proposition to some, but the whole point is to let people, especially children, interact with the subject in different and unexpected ways.

This is, in a very literal sense, all about ‘hands on’ maths – a way to turn ideas and abstract concepts into something that you can hold, manipulate and play with. Despite the ubiquity of digital touchscreens everywhere else in society, I am struck by the fact that there are only two in the whole centre – everything else offers an entirely tangible experience.

The Herald: MathsCity

The project has been driven by Dr Katie Chicot, an Open University lecturer and the CEO of MathsWorldUK, a charity which “exists to excite and engage everyone, especially the young, with the fascination and power of Mathematics.”

“We aim to change people's feelings about maths,” she tells me, speaking in rapid, energetic bursts as she bubbles with enthusiasm. “We want to change the prevailing culture around maths in this country.

“If you went to Singapore and said 'oh maths is boring, pointless, and difficult' that would be the most outrageous and shocking thing to say but those are the three core beliefs that, as a whole, our society has about maths.

"So we're trying to show it isn't boring - there is a way for you to have fun with it.”

For many people, however, maths is enormously challenging. It is common to hear people claim that they just aren’t good at maths, and to encounter the belief that children will struggle with it because their parents did.

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Some may even argue that, in the 21st Century, it doesn’t really matter anyway: despite what many of us were told in school, we do carry calculators around in our pockets all the time.

Dr Chicot doesn’t buy any of that.

“It is challenging, but that doesn't mean it's difficult and it can't be overcome. Everyone can get a bit further on - there's a challenge for every level of person - but you can always get further on. And being challenged isn't bad, being challenged is what makes you grow.

“So it's not that it's difficult, it's that it's challenging.

“As for pointless - there couldn't be anything more outrageous than saying that maths is pointless. It's used in every facet of industry and you need it in your day-to-day life to make sure you're making good decisions and to make sure you're really a participating citizen as well.”

The Herald:

She goes on to explain the need to fill a “cultural gap” in maths and, helpfully, comes up with an explanation that feels tailor-made for a former English teacher.

“What we're teaching in schools, it's all necessary, but it's like the grammar of maths. So you're sitting down and you're doing all your work, you're doing all your processes, but at no point has anyone said ‘do you know there's sort of like an interesting and a fascinating side to this, there's a cultural component to it?’

“It's like if you sat down in English and you just did your grammar and your sentences, your capital letters and full stops, your verbs and nouns and all the other words to do with English - but nobody had ever said 'read this book' or told you that there are libraries.

“But we're in a country that has no maths libraries! You know, we just need something there to bring a bit of the magic.”

MathsCity is, quite appropriately, something of an experiment – an attempted ‘proof of concept’ for those maths libraries that Dr Chicot wants to see across the country. As such it remains on a relatively small scale – yet the variety of exhibits is nonetheless impressive.

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A transparent cone holding blue liquid is attached to a rotating frame, allowing people to physically create complex conceptual shapes such as a parabola; an ‘Enigma Wheel’ offers a simple but extremely effective demonstration of Second World War code-breaking; a selection of bubble-based exhibits help visitors to understand space and distance; a ‘Ring of Fire’ uses light-beams and transparent, 3D objects to explore the connections between different shapes; a mirror-writing game encourages players to consider the effects of reflection and orientation.

“It’s all pure maths,” Dr Chicot explains. “It’s the shape and the geometry. It’s not even maths of the sciences. But we have aimed to fill the space with toys, basically - to fill it with games and with things that you can't do at home, because we want people to come out and visit it and have the whole experience.

“I guess what we want to do, if you think sort of 30 years ago, science was highly uncool. A portrayal of a scientist would be an uncool person. But now you get all this "I effin love science" stuff, you know? Science has got a coolness and I think the science discovery centres have done their share of that. We want to do that for maths."

During my visit I also meet two of MathsCity’s employees: Vitoria Policarpo, an infectiously enthusiastic young drama student, and Dr Gerard O’Reilly, who holds a PhD in maths and teaches at Leeds University. The contrast between the two is stark, and yet they’re both working here for the same reason: because of how it makes them feel.

“I was in a job I hated,” Vitoria says bluntly. “I was a server, but I hate the hospitality sector very much, and I wanted to work somewhere that was kind of like a 'me' job, if that makes sense.

"Despite being autistic I'm very much a people person. I'm very introverted and extroverted at the same time.

“I would say that I hated maths as a kid, I really did, but working here since leaving GCSE has meant I've been able to not be afraid of making mistakes.

"I'm never going to get reprimanded for making mistakes here. This is a safe space to see things in a different way.”

For Dr O’Reilly, the reward is found in engaging young people in a subject that he loves and is eager to share with anyone willing to learn.

The Herald: MathsCity

He said: “I think it’s just about getting to introduce children to maths in a way that they enjoy – and you really get to see them enjoying it. You can see them getting engaged. They want to solve the puzzles. They want to build things.”

His point is illustrated rather beautifully as I witness the creation of a Leonardo Dome – a self-supporting structure made possible by something called tensegrity – in a process that begins as a demonstration for my benefit and ends with the enthusiastic inclusion of a visiting family.

After an enormously enjoyable few hours it’s time to head home. Ayliean is staying to run some sessions at MathsCity the next day, so I settle in for a train ride that will, eventually, take me back to Glasgow.

As the journey north begins, I can’t help but wish that I could visit another maths discovery centre without needing to spend a whole day travelling there and back, because the value of such a facility seems entirely obvious now that I’ve seen it for myself.

We often hear people talk about the need to address attitudes to maths and, in particular, to make it more real, more relevant and more hands-on. After my trip to MathsCity I’ve got a good idea of what that might look like.