Oxford math professor backs Web games to teach kids

LONDON Mon Nov 30, 2009 10:01am EST

1 of 5. Oxford University professor Marcus du Sautoy in an undated photo.

Credit: Reuters/Manga High/Handout

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Internet games can boost children's interest in mathematics, says a footballing Oxford University professor who plays wearing the prime number 17 and uses dance to prove theorems.

Marcus du Sautoy says there is "a real crisis" in maths education in English secondary schools, attended by pupils aged 11 to 16, where he says initially enthusiastic pupils "lose interest and become bored."

His response is a glitzy maths website that uses arcade-style games to teach children curriculum topics such as geometry and quadratic equations.

Called Manga High and illustrated in the style of a Japanese comic, website www.mangahigh.com offers free games to the casual visitor but offers a structured maths course for subscribers and is aimed at schools as well as individual pupils.

Du Sautoy is an adviser to the website, created by entrepreneur Toby Rowland, co-founder of King.com, one of the largest internet game companies, and son of the late tycoon Roland "Tiny" Rowland.

The two first met at Oxford University when Rowland, four years younger than Du Sautoy, was seeking advice on how to run a college ball.

"I've seen how much my child plays games on the internet, on his PS3, and when Toby came to me and said can we use all these skills that people are developing ... I thought it was quite an interesting challenge," said Du Sautoy.

He said the aim had been to make an integral part of the games "really challenging kinds of maths" and not just mental arithmetic.

A number of schools in London as well as Tennessee in the United States are trying out the website, which includes a game called "Save Our Dumb Planet," where children have to enter coordinates on a graph to aim a missile at an asteroid heading for the Earth.

"I think the teachers have been very impressed by the depth of the mathematics that we have managed to embed in these games. You can only get a high score if you do the maths," Du Sautoy said.

He said the game was a good example of the sort of maths that real scientists use, in this case to chart the course of a spaceship through the solar system.

"It provides context for the type of maths that you are doing, it's fun and you are actually learning things from doing it."

Since last year Du Sautoy has also been the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at New College, an Oxford position previously held by Richard Dawkins, author of "the Selfish Gene."

"I'm somebody who does science and I like talking about it. I don't mind being called a popularizer," he said.

As well as authoring academic articles he has presented a BBC television series on the Story of Maths, written popular science books on prime numbers and symmetry, and once went on stage to dance the proof of the irrationality of the square root of three.

At 44 he is now past the age when mathematicians are meant to have produced their best work, but he said he is still discovering new structures in the complexities of numbers.

"Quite often mathematical ideas come when you are not thinking about them," he said, recommending afternoon power naps to revitalize brainpower when stuck on an intransigent problem.

"The subconscious in doing maths is incredibly important. I have woken up with the solution crystal clear in my mind, it's absolutely extraordinary."

Du Sautoy relaxes by playing trumpet or chasing the ball around a soccer pitch in east London with his Sunday league team, Recreativo Hackney.

Even there he has found a use for his mathematical skills, although the result appears to have more to do with magic than formal logic.

"We were doing very badly and bottom of our league, so I persuaded my team to change our kit. We all played in prime numbers the following season, and we came second in the league, and got promoted."

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

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