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Thirty years of maths support for local schools

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STIMULUS mentor, Alexander Simpson, with pupils at St Luke's Primary School, Cambridge.
Today, England has a major shortage of maths teachers and applications to train to teach the subject are falling.  But as early as 1987, Toni Beardon OBE, then a lecturer in Cambridge’s Faculty of Education, recognised that there was a growing problem. At the same time, she saw that Cambridge students could make a major contribution to their local community while also enriching their university experience.
 
Now known as STIMULUS,  and co-ordinated by the Millennium Mathematics Project since 1999, the programme has seen extraordinary growth. This academic year (2015-16), 190 Cambridge students have supported the teaching of STEM subjects in 19 primary schools, ten secondary schools, two sixth-form colleges, and one special school in the Cambridge area.
 
STIMULUS volunteers are recruited from a wide range of disciplines but the majority study Mathematics, Engineering, Natural Sciences, Medicine or Computer Science. Most are undergraduates but some are Masters and even PhD students. 
 
Each STIMULUS placement involves a weekly commitment of usually one afternoon per week for one university term. Over the course of a year, the programme donates over 2,000 hours of volunteering to local schools.
 

 
The programme also aims to encourage volunteers to consider teaching as a career and gives them valuable classroom experience.  Every year, several final year volunteers go on to study for a PGCE or are accepted on the Teach First scheme but for most, the primary motivation is sharing their passion for their subject and helping others to succeed.
 
Emma Russell, a Final Year Mathematics student helps at Chesterton Community College once a week. Today, Emma is leading a drop-in maths clinic for Ruby and Catriona. Ruby, who is gearing up to sit her GCSE exams, wants some help with vectors, while Catriona, a Year-10 regular, just wants to stretch herself and build confidence.
 
Catriona says: “Normally I don’t put my hand up in class but I find it easier to talk in a small group like this.” Ruby agrees: “I’m less afraid to get things wrong.”
 
When asked whether they ever felt nervous about number crunching with a Cambridge maths whizz, Ruby and Catriona laugh. “I don’t think they find me very intimidating”, says Emma: 
 
“I started mentoring two years ago because I was considering a career in teaching. It’s also a great way to remove yourself from studying, which can be pretty intense. I’ve learnt how to look for different ways to explain things and to break problems down rather than just rush to the answer. It’s helped me a lot and I’ve just landed my first job teaching maths when I leave Cambridge.” 
 
Neil Kelly, Head of IT and a Maths teacher at Chesterton Community College, has been working with STIMULUS volunteers for five years, and says:
 
“They’re particularly good at stretching our best students. The programme dispels myths on both sides. It shows our students that these maths geniuses are normal people who started out at school like them. And it helps the mentors get out of their university bubble. They don’t just talk about maths, they get a relationship going and they have a really positive influence.”
 
Neil adds: “I see it as part of my job to encourage the maths teachers of the future because we really need them and it’s a great thing to do with your life. The problem is that if you study maths at university, you can get a highly paid job in finance or computing. You won’t get paid the same in education but teaching is more than a career, it’s a privilege.”
 
2015 saw the expansion of the STIMULUS programme through a collaboration with the national Code Club network. Since October 2014, a team of volunteers have been running weekly sessions in several Cambridge primary schools to introduce these eager young students to programming. 
 
Alexander Simpson, a Final Year Computer Scientist from Scotland, has been running the show at St Luke’s Primary School in Chesterton for nearly two years. He says:
 
“I started because I was determined to get young people excited about programming and help make it more diverse, especially by getting more girls involved. I start by showing the children something inspirational that they might be able to create with software one day, like a space craft. Then we go back to the basics but they learn really fast and it’s a lot of fun.”
 
Daryl Corlito, Teacher of Year 4 at St Luke’s, says: “Alexander’s sessions involve lots of transferrable problem-solving skills and he’s really helped to build confidence, especially among the girls. I’ve worked with STIMULUS for a long time and the children can’t wait to see the students.”
 
Several rungs up the educational ladder, some STIMULUS mentors help students with A-Level Maths and Science, Further Maths and university applications. 
 
At Long Road Sixth Form College, Balaji Krishna, a First Year Mathematician at Trinity College, has been offering general classroom support. He says: “I went to a state school near Cardiff and used to help GCSE students there so I wanted to carry that on. It’s relaxing to come here and it reminds me how much I’ve learnt.”
 
Meanwhile, Filip Bar, a Fourth Year PhD mathematician has been working one-to-one with Sam on his preparations for STEP, an exam used to assess aptitude for university study in mathematical subjects.
 
Filip says: “Teaching rather than just thinking about mathematical problems is refreshing. I know the solution but how can I communicate it? It gives you a fresh perspective.”
 
Long Road’s Maths Team Leader, Stephen Warr, says: “We use STIMULUS mentors in quite specific ways to make the most of their expertise. They often arrive looking nervous but they soon settle in and benefit from seeing how we interact, explain and use resources. I think there’s a cultural attitude in the UK that it’s ok to be bad at maths and that puts people off teaching the subject but you can transform lives and that’s very satisfying.”
 
Volunteers take a break from STIMULUS in the University’s Easter term to prepare for their exams but the project is already recruiting for Michaelmas Term

The University’s STIMULUS project has helped thousands of student volunteers to become teaching assistants in local schools.

I’ve worked with STIMULUS for a long time and the children can’t wait to see the students.
Daryl Corlito, Teacher of Year 4 at St Luke’s Primary School, Cambridge
STIMULUS mentor, Alexander Simpson, with pupils at St Luke's Primary School, Cambridge.

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