What's the password? Making maths natural and fun

7 June 2022

Carolyn Gibbs
University of Waikato alumna, Carolyn Gibbs likes to use everyday situations as a learning opportunity

"What’s the password to enter? Give me π to 2 decimal places." Maths teacher and University of Waikato alumna Carolyn Gibbs sometimes gives her nieces and nephews a maths question to answer before they can enter her home. It’s one of the ways she likes to use maths in everyday situations.

Carolyn is a maths teacher at St Paul’s Collegiate School in Hamilton where she enjoys helping rangatahi improve maths-skills while helping them to build strong relationships. Her goal is that her students see the value of maths, which at times can be a hard sell. “We use maths in everyday life; therefore, we need to have a thorough comprehension of it. From knowing how much paint to purchase when renovating to calculating mortgage rates and repayment, maths is everywhere. It is also a much-needed subject for those who want a career in engineering, surveying, economics or architecture,” says Carolyn.

Carolyn’s love of maths was instilled in her by her mathematician father who insisted that no calculators were used when things could be worked out in your head or on paper. “Dad taught maths in a way that was fun. He was a fan of using Cuisenaire Rods or cutting out geometric shapes to work out the area of an object. I grew up thinking that every child played maths games at home.”

With maths in her genes, it is no surprise that Carolyn wanted to help others understand it but it wasn’t until 20 years after leaving high school that she decided to step into the classroom. “Maths was a favourite subject at secondary school so it was natural for me to study it in my undergraduate studies.”

After Carolyn graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Statistics, she did a series of jobs and then took some time out of the work-force when she had her four children. During that time, she tutored students. “Doing private tutoring strengthened my desire to be a maths teacher. I got a buzz from helping teenagers improve,” says Carolyn.

This ‘buzz’ was the catalyst for Carolyn to enrol in a one-year Graduate Diploma of Teaching in 2016.

Returning to study after 17 years while juggling family life had its trials but overall it was rewarding. “It was a different experience being the ‘old’ student in the class and it was challenging to recall the higher-level maths. “There were many changes since I last studied. The process of marking our assignments and the way in which we submitted assignments were very different. The University's electronic assessment system, Moodle was a big change from my 1995 handwritten essays.”

Carolyn found the intellectual stimulation refreshing. “I had better grades as an adult student than as a 19-year-old. I was more focused and could see how to apply the teaching from the lectures to the assignments. Being with like-minded students on campus was really enjoyable.”

Since graduating, Carolyn has been in the classroom and constantly looks for ways to make maths relevant and interesting. She uses the competitive nature of her students to spark an interest. “Students love Kahoot!, Blooket and quizzes; a game of Nerdle is great for the thinking. Other games like Greedy Pig, Math Tag and Back 2 Back whiteboard multiplication are ways anyone can have fun in maths.”

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, she and her colleagues had to be adaptable with online learning. “The digitised content we use needs to be targeted and highly effective in an online environment where there is no maths teacher present which can happen when a student or teacher is at home isolating.”

Carolyn’s advice to anyone thinking of studying maths is, “Do it. It is a strong degree with a solid base from which you can build on. It took me to teaching which is perfect for me.”

Oh, and the password is 3.14.

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