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Features: Faculty Insights


Professor Julia Gog and the Faculty's outreach initiative have launched an innovative school curriculum and public engagement project supported by a Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award grant. The project aims to share the excitement of mathematical research and link it to the school curriculum, and to highlight the role of mathematics in tackling real-world problems.

Julia Gog is Professor of Mathematical Biology at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP). With research focussing on disease modelling, Gog played a vital role in the UK's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, contributing to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) and earning an OBE for her contribution.

The 11-14 age we are targeting is a real crunch point for retaining girls in maths, and future female mathematicians. Julia Gog

Gog also has a long-standing interest in communicating mathematics to wider audiences. Over the years she has worked closely with the Millennium Mathematics Project (MMP), the Faculty's flagship outreach and education initiative, and became its Director in 2023. Her work in this area includes the UK's largest citizen science project, delivered in 2018 in collaboration with the BBC, and co-presenting the 2021 Royal Institution Christmas Lecture.

In 2020 Gog won a Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award and Lecture for her work. The prize is awarded annually and comes with a grant of £40,000 to implement a project to raise the profile of women in STEM. Gog's project, called Contagious Maths and developed in collaboration with the MMP, was launched in February 2024, to coincide with the UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

Hitting the crunch point

Contagious Maths is a hands-on exploration of disease modelling, featuring video clips and web-based interactivities and requiring no previous knowledge of the area. The project consists of two strands, one aimed at a general self-guided audience and published on the MMP's Plus magazine, and the other aimed at school students aged 11 to 14 and their teachers, published on the MMP's NRICH site.

"The 11-14 age we are targeting is a real crunch point for retaining girls in maths, and future female mathematicians," Gog said in an interview on the Royal Society website. "What exactly happens is complex and multifaceted, but this is a period when people form their views on how they fit with maths and science. Many disengage as it can seem that 'maths' at school is utterly disconnected from the real world. It can also be a time when maths appears very starkly right or wrong, whereas any research mathematician can tell you it's always so much more subtle than that, and therefore so much more interesting!"

The dynamic nature of mathematical modelling, and mathematical research generally, is central to Contagious Maths. In a sequence of short video clips Gog encourages users to investigate topics such as exponential growth, the reproduction ratio R, and herd immunity, and gently guides her audience towards the idea of a mathematical model.

Interactivities allow users to explore these ideas for themselves. The Lucky dip interactivity, for example, uses a tombola to simulate the outbreak of an epidemic, with infected 'individuals' being picked at random from a population and going on to infect others. Users can change the corresponding value of R and observe differences and similarities between runs of the simulated epidemic.

Underlying this interactivity, as Gog explains in one of the video clips, is the so-called SIR model, a leading paradigm in epidemiology. Contagious Maths provides a playful and intuitive introduction to the mathematical ideas behind the model without recourse to sophisticated equations, while always referencing the reality of mathematical modelling. "We've been frank that the maths is never black and white in this field, there are always ways to challenge and develop the models, and some tricky thinking to be done about how the real epidemics and the simulations are really related to each other," Gog said in the Royal Society interview.

The suite of resources falls into five parts, or lessons, with ample guidance for teachers provided on the NRICH site. "We’re also arming teachers with the ideas and tools to do this, so they have at their fingertips all they need to deliver these lessons," says Gog. "We hope this project will help teachers to bring in the wider view of mathematics, and we hope it inspires them too."

From 2 times 2 to research maths

The sequence of lessons is rooted in the mathematics curriculum, but while it starts with the simple idea of repeated multiplication, it ends with users exploring the kind of questions professional epidemiologists try to answer in their work. The project also brings in some of Gog's colleagues at DAMTP, culminating in a sequence of short video clips featuring Gog talking about her research into optimal allocation of vaccine doses, Dr Petra Klepac explaining the importance of contact patterns in epidemiology, and PhD students Maria Alegria Gutierrez and Desmond Lai talking about their work on virus mutation and waning immunity.

Contagious Maths benefits from Gog's experience in education and public engagement, as well as the expertise of MMP staff. NRICH, one of the projects falling under the MMP umbrella, develops free, curriculum-linked resources for learners and teachers of mathematics from primary to post-16 levels, focusing on developing problem-solving skills and helping students to develop their mathematical reasoning, confidence, resilience and creativity. Complementing NRICH is Plus, which works with mathematical science researchers to communicate their work through articles and podcasts, published primarily on its free online platform. Plus is aimed at students and teachers, policy makers and press, industry and researchers in other fields, and indeed anyone curious about what happens at the cutting edge of mathematical science.

In bringing the central ideas of disease modelling to school and wider audiences, the hope is not just to bring across the excitement of mathematics and the benefits it has for society, but also to introduce some of the people who make the maths. "Visible role models can make pursuing STEM seem more imaginable to more school students, and help them decide they want to pursue it," said Gog. "It's a matter of fairness, everyone should have these wonderful opportunities, but it also benefits STEM. New students are our lifeblood, and we want those who can bring the most in terms of ability and motivation – we're going to get the best by being available to the widest group possible."

Explore the Contagious Maths resources.

The photo above shows Julia Gog (middle) together with Plus Editor Marianne Freiberger (left) and Howard France (right) of Avito Ltd who filmed and produced the videos. Photo: Rachel Thomas.