In conversation with Dominique Sleet

Ellen Jolley learns how to run a maths outreach programme


There are many qualities attributed to mathematicians that we can be proud of: we’re logical, meticulous, intelligent, even creative. Despite maths being revered for needing all of these excellent attributes, one thing we are perhaps not so renowned for is our communication skills: most of the world still finds maths intimidating and opaque. That’s why Chalkdust sat down with science communication expert Dominique Sleet to learn the secrets that will help us to share the beauty of maths as far and wide as possible.

Science explained

Dominique began her science communication life as an explainer at the Science Museum in London. Many London-based Chalkdust readers will be keenly familiar with the Science Museum, but for those who are not, the Science Museum is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. As well as many more traditional static galleries, it has several interactive galleries aimed at young people, which are like science-themed playgrounds.

The Science Museum (Wikimedia Commons user Shadowssettle, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Explainers are tasked with (you guessed it) explaining the science behind what they’re doing. “You get to play with some fun things, like putting flowers into liquid nitrogen and smashing them or blowing up a hydrogen balloon. The whole museum ethos is to build an association between fun and science. If there’s some learning in there then that’s great, but there doesn’t have to be; it’s just about nurturing that relationship.” But there’s plenty to learn if you’re looking. “Some of the science behind the exhibits is beautiful. We had this exhibit where you would look through polarising lenses at a thin layer of ice and you could see all these feathery beautiful patterns with amazing colours. I’m a nerd, I like science.”

Those of us who grew up to be Chalkdust editors could spend a cheerful afternoon churning out algebra, but for most children the liquid nitrogen has the more evident appeal. “Maths has its challenges. It’s a lot more abstract. With science, as long as you use the right language, you can make almost anything accessible, whereas with maths, you often need to have prior knowledge.” And don’t forget that intimidation. “People have this barrier, it’s almost like a badge, ‘I don’t do maths.’ And it’s really sad. So before you’ve even begun, you have to overcome this preconception of maths being like an alien language, and only for clever people.” People are often more receptive to the content if they don’t know that it’s maths—”Pattern Pod was my favourite gallery, which was for under-eights and all about maths, but we were looking at patterns and didn’t label it as maths.” Unfortunately, the plausible deniability can’t last forever, and inevitably your audience will notice that they are being subjected to maths: what then? “You need to show why something’s important and make it relevant to everyday life. You can’t get into the depth that you’d need to understand all the maths behind the exhibits, but you can go into some detail about how the maths was used, how it changed the world, and what impact it had on people.” The work does not end there however. How do we get people to turn up for maths in the first place?

A royal invitation

Dominique talking in the Royal Institution lecture theatre

Receiving millions of visitors per year, the Science Museum is well-placed to reach out to people who wouldn’t usually be interested. “But even then there are barriers. I remember doing an outreach programme in south-east London and people hadn’t even heard of the Science Museum. That’s why outreach is really important. Going out into local communities and finding the people where they are in their everyday lives.”

Dominique’s next job was at the Royal Institution (also in London), where she worked on everything from their famous annual Christmas lectures to their extensive year-round masterclass programme. So what’s the trick to running a maths masterclass? “Pick a topic that interests you because if you’re passionate about the topic then you’re halfway there. The kids aren’t going to be excited about something if you’re not excited yourself. In the same breath, you need to realise that, while you might find something amazing, other people really don’t. You’ve got to show them why it’s interesting.”

A braid made during one of Matthew Scroggs’s RI masterclasses

It was nice to hear a shoutout for one of Chalkdust‘s own, who apparently is quite the master of masterclasses himself. “This will sound like I’m sucking up, but I remember a session with Matthew Scroggs getting the kids to explore different braiding patterns. There’s actually some really interesting maths going on, because some combinations of braid would work and some of them wouldn’t. But at the end he was saying he doesn’t really understand it, he doesn’t know what makes a good braid and what doesn’t.” This open-ended aspect of maths often isn’t apparent until university, and school often leaves people with the idea that all the maths has been done. “Kids have this idea that maths can only be right or wrong, but in fact there can be lots of exploration. And maths can be really quite creative.”

When Dominique learned that the 2019 Christmas lectures would be focused on maths, and feature veritable maths celebs Hannah Fry and Matt Parker, she jumped at the chance to be involved. “My role was Christmas lectures assistant, a kind of catch-all. On the night itself, I’m the one in the front row, on the laptop with little prompts for Hannah—and at the same time, trying to keep an eye on messages from livestreaming venues, to make sure they’re all happy.” And it was a lot of hard work. “Very high pressure and some of the team would work until two o’clock in morning. It was crazy.” One of her contributions turned out to be very prescient, in a segment designed to show how mass vaccination succeeds. “I suggested that we use surgical masks to indicate that the kids were vaccinated and that they can’t catch the virus. Now looking back on it—oh my God! Told the future!”

Dominique with Christmas lecturer Hannah Fry

Of course, communicating maths for TV brings with it some new challenges. “Sometimes there will be conflicting priorities between the production team and the Royal Institution. The production team want everything to look flashy. Whereas obviously the RI still want it to be interesting, but we also want to make sure the integrity of the maths is still there.” Those who watched the Christmas lectures (if you didn’t, you should hang up your maths fanatic hat right now) will recall a specific sequence which involved schoolchildren lining up and then taking a step to either the left or the right based on the result of a coin toss. “What we were trying to show was that probabilities can help you predict outcomes. So we wanted to get this lovely bell-shaped curve from all the students moving about, but we didn’t get what we were hoping for. Partly because it’s hard to instruct a large group of people to do exactly what you’re asking, but also simply because probability doesn’t offer any guarantees.” So where did that leave the narrative of the lecture? “The fact that the kids didn’t do what we thought is actually a really interesting point in itself. But from a TV perspective, that’s the opening demonstration and we can’t go off on a tangent. So we ended up having a montage of two different schools in the lecture.”

Widening participation

As Dominique moves on to her next job working on the outreach programme at Imperial College London, she finds that the university setting has an increased focus on widening participation—so how do we convince young people from underrepresented groups to consider maths? She says an obvious start is making your event free if possible (since financial barriers often have a big impact), and ensuring diverse role models are present. “Representation does matter—look for different people from different backgrounds, from different areas, as well as different topics.” Marketing is also crucial. “You can have the best outreach in the world, but if nobody knows about it and it’s not reaching the right people, then it’s not doing anything.” But don’t think your job is over once you have them in the room. “The audience should be kept at the forefront of your mind. You need to be thinking about who your activity is for, what you want them to learn and how are you going to make sure they actually understand?”

Finally, she encourages everyone to take the necessary time and effort to accommodate accessibility needs. “Putting a bit of effort in to make it as accessible as possible, whether that’s looking at the colour scheme you’re using for colour blindness, not putting too many words on a screen, or having materials available in advance or in large print. All of those accessibility things can feel like extra work but they’re only ever going to improve it. Good for everyone—not just the person you are trying to accommodate.”

Having only been at Imperial for three months, she is is still reasonably new to the job, but has a lot of positive things to say about what she has seen. Her current project focuses on sixth formers. “I think the programme itself is really worthwhile, it’s very intense. There are online courses, with mentoring sessions in small groups throughout the year as well as large welcome and closing events on campus, although as you can imagine these have had to convert to online events in recent times.” Looking to the future, she says: “There is a move to intervene earlier in children’s maths education so Imperial, like many other organisations, have a growing number of outreach programmes aimed at younger students.” We wish her all the best in her latest endeavour.

Ellen is a PhD student at UCL studying fluid mechanics. She specialises in the flow around droplets and ice particles.

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