Architecture and Mathematics
Since February 2018 the Melbourne office of international architecture firm Woods Bagot has been supporting a new innovation; The Institute for Enquiring Minds Mentoring Program.
At 498 Little Collins Street there is a hive of activity hidden in the unique award winning studio that Woods Bagot designed for their own staff. It is a fascinating space with a semi-secret entrance that opens into a light filled space showcasing scaled models and fine furniture. The stairs up to the engine room of the business are part lecture theatre and part communal space. On reaching the next level there are a series of bright meeting spaces that feel like a large family might break their bread there on special occasions. Around these are drawing tables and huge high definition screens filled with evidence of furious creative activity. Deeper in the studio is the model makers room; a fantasy land for anyone that ever made anything miniature or loved Lego. The whole space draws in an enquiring mind.
Once you step out of the tiny lift into the lobby area on your left hand side there is a huge shimmering curtain of steel. It is a graceful semi-transparent screen that reaches around an impressive monolithic table that reminds you of a knights chain mail armour.
Behind the chain mail curtain are the Mentors of the Institute for Enquiring Minds working with the Western Chances Scholars. Young mathematicians helping younger mathematicians solve problems.
The big problem in question is one of unequal opportunities. There is a crisis in Maths education. Standards and participation rates are falling. You will all of heard of the initiatives to promote interest in the so called STEAM subjects; Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths. Maths is the big one. It is no longer compulsory to do maths up to year 12 of high school in Victoria. Young people, disengaged from maths early in their high school career, know they can drop it for the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE). They know they don’t have to do maths beyond year 10 and they are turning their minds elsewhere from a very early age. How far can you go in science, technology or engineering if you struggle with maths? Teaching Maths in high school is no easy task. We know, we did it. Classes are large, the range of abilities in each class is impossibly wide, curricula and governing policies are changing all the time. As a teacher if half of your year 9 and 10 classes have already ‘decided’ that they are not doing maths can you imagine trying to keep those teenagers interested? Can you imagine trying to control that entire classroom? Who would be a maths teacher in 2019? The high school teachers that consistently deliver excellent maths teaching in the high school system should be considered modern heroes.
Regardless of how good a given maths teacher is many high school students will need extra help. Maths is a subject that is not taught purely from the front of a classroom or lecture hall. You have to work it out yourself at your own pace. No cookie cutter approach will suffice. Individualised teaching is key for many people. This is part of why there is a huge private maths tutoring industry. Families that can afford it pay up to $100 an hour for the better tutors. But what about the families that cannot afford that?
The Institute for Enquiring Minds is a charity set up in Melbourne to try to radically change how maths is experienced. We want to redefine how disadvantaged people access maths teaching and reset negative attitudes towards the subject in general. Maths is seen as a dry, difficult and dull subject by many high school students. That misconception is increasingly widespread.
Western Chances is an important charity, set up by Terry Bracks AM in 2003, whose purpose is to assist motivated young people in Melbourne’s western suburbs achieve their full potential. These are impressive young people. The charity has grown to become a significant influence on socio-economic development in the western suburbs, investing over $6million and assisting nearly 3000 people. Western Chances has been an organisational mentor to The Institute for Enquiring Minds and we are proud to have delivered over 1000 hours of elite level maths mentorship to their scholars alone. The vast majority of those hours of learning have occurred in Woods Bagot or at other Woods Bagot designed shared working spaces.
The Institute for Enquiring Minds sets out to find partners in architecture because architecture is where Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths all meet. This is where the STEAM is.
When we approach an architecture company we try to explain what we do and why they might support us. We are very into maths so we start there. The employees at an architecture firm have some of the highest school mathematics scores of any profession. Yet, when we ask them, there are those who enjoyed maths and those that just didn’t. Those that enjoyed maths often have a story of the moment that they suddenly ”got it” or remember the teacher (formal or otherwise) that completely changed their mind about maths, someone that pulled back the curtain and revealed a hidden world of abstract beauty and solutions to problems. Like the first time you rode a bicycle mixed with learning to fly with Tinkerbell.
This is where the Enquiring Minds Mentorship program tries to help. We offer scholarships to high school students that can prove financial need, potential for improvement and a capacity to work. Successful applicants get a minimum 20 hours of face to face, one to one maths tuition from a true maths enthusiast. Our teachers are maths undergraduates (80%) and graduates (20%). We call the tutors ‘Mentors’ because they do more than just tutor, they are the embodiment of a passion for maths. They have made it their career. They demonstrate a world of opportunity that they have tapped into through mathematics.
That world of opportunity is then underlined by the surroundings in which we deliver the scholarships. Architecture is possibly the most complete amalgam of mathematics and creativity. Our Mentees and Mentors love meeting in the inspiring space at the Woods Bagot studio. The people that work there may have gotten used to it but our scholars rave about it. The only other space we use currently that is nearly as popular is the Woods Bagot designed NAB building at 700 Bourke. It is no accident that they enjoy these spaces. Good architecture elicits a response.
Beyond the Scholarships the Institute has an expansive suite of activities but the meeting of a motivated learner with a passionate teacher in an inspiring space is where it all begins.
The Institute for Enquiring Minds would like to thank Kel Dennis and Jo Dane of Woods Bagot being so accommodating. We would like to thank everyone at the Melbourne Office, especially all the lovely people at the reception area. Perhaps in the not too distant future a former student of Enquiring Minds Mentoring Program will be working at a place like 498 Bourke. Maybe even at Woods Bagot now that the curtain has been drawn back.
We would love to meet with other architecture firms to see if we can work together to help motivated young people like the scholars from Western Chances.