Inaugural annual Maths lecture for students

A graphic picture of Mandelbrot set
Mandelbrot set – Image by Charles Thonney↗️ from Pixabay↗️

In this post, Ana highlights a Student Partnership Agreement (SPA)↗️ funded initiative that brought together two undergraduate students and two faculty members to organize a repeatable and sustainable annual event at the School of Mathematics↗️. Ana Rita Pires is a Lecturer in the School of Mathematics. This post belongs to the Hot topic series: Student Partnership Agreement 2023↗️.

This Student Partnership Agreement project sought to invite a speaker to give a talk aimed primarily at mathematics students at the undergraduate level, but open also to students from other schools in the university, as well as graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and faculty members.

Seminars, colloquia, and special lectures are part of the day-to-day activity of the School of Mathematics↗️: talks by specialists from around the world that help disseminate new ideas and work in mathematics, as well as create a sense of academic community. Attending these alongside your peers is part of the experience of being a mathematician, and we wanted to bring this experience to the undergraduate students in the school – to some possibly for the first time. We aimed to invite a high-profile mathematician to give a non-specialist but rigorous talk on a captivating mathematical topic that was out of the realm of course material, thus recovering the feeling of wonder, curiosity, and enthusiasm for mathematics that students have when they decide to enter a maths degree but which often fades as they struggle with their courses.

A poster invite to a lecture titled 'A tour of the Mandelbrot set''

On 27 March 2022, we welcomed Professor Holly Krieger to give a talk titled “A Tour of the Mandelbrot Set”. Professor Holly Krieger is a renowned mathematician at the University of Cambridge, specializing in dynamical systems and number theory. She is also known for her engaging contributions to the YouTube channel Numberphile↗️, making complex math concepts accessible to a broader audience.

Her work combines research, teaching, and outreach, leaving a significant impact on the world of mathematics and education.

The abstract of the talk was:

“The Mandelbrot set is a famous image, but its mathematical content is much less widely known. We’ll take a mathematical walk around the Mandelbrot set, visiting the minibrots and the Feigenbaum point. We’ll stop at the rabbit, rabbit, and airplane, and answer the question: what happens when you twist the ears of the rabbit? We’ll find the freshman sum and the Fibonacci sequence. Finally, we’ll provide one answer to the question every mathematician wonders when they first meet the Mandelbrot set: why do we care about this pretty picture.”

A photograph of an ongoing lecture at a lecture theatre
Image credit: Ana Rita Pires, School of Mathematics

We had an audience of about 100 people, with many students staying after the talk to ask questions to the speaker – something that definitely happens at the end of a good research seminar or colloquium!

Organization and lessons learned:

The organizing team consisted of two undergraduate students (Yashh Kotecha and Rishab Acharya) and two faculty members (Ana Rita Pires and Stuart King). Our goal, in addition to organizing this year’s event, was to build a sustainable model that could be repeated annually and become a tradition for the students and the School. Funding has been secured to organise this event in future years.

The most challenging part of the task was finding a speaker. For environmental reasons, we targeted speakers from the UK or Europe. Mathematicians that are recognised by students (for example, in this case, Prof. Holly Krieger contributes to the YouTube channel Numberphile↗️) can be impossible to reach and often have schedules that are too full with higher-profile events. Thus, we may have to broaden our criteria for speakers — there are certainly mathematicians who give excellent talks of this type and who are not published authors (other than of specialist research articles) or famous on social media platforms.

Intense advertising leading up to the event was key in attracting an audience, and for that the help of the two student organisers was key. It became very clear that organising this sort of event must be a joint effort of students and staff members.

There is one more aspect of attending traditional research seminars and colloquia that would be interesting to replicate in future instances of this Maths Lecture for Students: the opportunity for a small group of interested audience members to go out to (a free of charge) dinner with the speaker after the talk, to chat more about the topic of the lecture and learn about the experience of being a mathematician. For any students considering further studies, this will also be a glimpse into the experience of being a postgraduate student.

Thank you SPA for enabling us to try this proof of concept!

Photograph of the author Ana Rita Pires

Ana Rita Pires is a Lecturer in the School of Mathematics. She does research in Symplectic Geometry and Geometric Topology, teaches various math courses, supervises final-year projects, is a cohort lead, and is active in outreach activities to broader audiences.

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