Dr Kit Yates is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Mathematical Sciences and co-director of the Centre for Mathematical Biology at the University of Bath. Alongside his academic position, Kit is also an author and science communicator. His first book, The Maths of Life and Death, is about the places where maths can have an impact on our everyday lives without us even realising it.
His research demonstrates that mathematics can be used to describe all sorts of real-world phenomena: from embryo formation to locust swarming and from sleeping sickness to egg-shell patterning. He is particularly interested in the role that randomness plays in Biology.
You can follow Kit on Twitter.
1. What’s your earliest memory of doing mathematics?
My family, despite being tremendously supportive, were not a family of scientists/mathematicians. In many respects this was fortunate because I was allowed to make many mathematical discoveries for myself.
I have one early memory of mathematics from around the time I first went to school – I must have been four or five. My dad, jokingly, asked me to go and check if the water in our pond was flat. Taking his request very seriously, I went into the garden and found to my surprise that the water was, indeed, not what I thought of as flat (the old bath tub we had sunk into the ground to make the pond was not level so the water reached to different heights on either side). I reported this to my dad and he said something along the lines of “Are you sure you looked closely, because it has to be flat?” I think I missed the obvious point about the different possible orientations of planes, but I remember this triggering another idea in my head that if you looked closely enough at something that it would indeed be flat. This “zooming in idea” was something I revisited often in my head over the years.
When I eventually met differential calculus in school this was a huge validation of my thought process. I’m not claiming that I somehow pre-empted calculus or even that “zooming in” is what differential calculus is all about, but the recognition that the idea that had been in my head had been thought about before by great mathematicians confirmed in me the idea that I wanted to be a mathematician.
2. How has mathematics education changed in the time you have been involved in it?
At school level, mathematics education seems to have changed significantly in the time since I was at school in the nineties. Home schooling has been a real education for me. [This interview took place in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic, when parents of school children had been obliged to teach their children at home for a period.] I’ve learned about bar models, part-whole models and Numicon. I think these can all be helpful tools for children of different abilities when they’re used in the right way.
My teaching expertise, however, lies at university level. Things have changed in this sector dramatically since I was an undergraduate student. Perhaps the most obvious changes are the digitisation of teaching resources. I remember having to pick up a printed problem sheet from the basement of the Maths Institute. If they ran out, they ran out, and you had to borrow a friend’s. If you missed a lecture, you had to copy up the notes you missed from someone who attended the lecture and was kind enough to share, errors and all.
Now we scaffold students so much better with online learning environments, recorded lectures, electronic copies of lecture notes and problem sheets. Students are able to engage with course material in multiple different ways, which can only be beneficial. We also cater much better for students with a range of different learning requirements.
At my university I’ve also led pioneering teaching grants designed to investigate the use of tablet technology in the lecture theatre and for teaching more generally. I have delivered many of my lectures on a tablet, which facilitates multimedia interactivity and accessibility. This experience has also been extremely beneficial when it comes to delivering remote online learning during the pandemic. I shudder to think what would have happened to the quality of teaching if the COVID-19 pandemic had hit 15 years ago when I was still a student. Having this expertise, I’ve been able to help some of my colleagues familiarise themselves with these new technologies and adapt to teaching online. In many ways the pandemic has pushed forwards technological change that has been on the cards for a number of years. I think it’s absolutely vital that when things return to near-normality, we adopt the best practices that have emerged during the last year and don’t simply revert back to what we were doing before – that we try to build back better.
3. Tell me about a time in your career when something totally flabbergasted you.
I don’t know about flabbergasted, but every year I am impressed with the creative and novel ways my students find to answer the questions I set them. I love this part of my job because I feel like I’m still learning even from the students whom I am trying to nurture myself. Getting a fresh perspective on a problem is always a good thing and it’s perhaps most satisfying when it comes from an unexpected place.
4. Do you practise mathematics differently in company?
This is an interesting question. Certainly, when I lecture, I make sure to include all the details of my mathematical working and to be as clear as possible in a way which I wouldn’t if I was just doing maths for my own research. My general philosophy when giving a talk or a lecture is that very few people complain if a talk is too simple. By making a talk as straightforward as possible you stand the best chance of reaching the biggest possible audience. The same philosophy holds if I’m deliberately doing an event for the public like a talk or a YouTube video.
I try not to just break out maths when hanging out with friends or family because I think non-mathematicians need to be receptive and in the right mood if you want them to engage in mathematics. That’s not to say I think we shouldn’t be sharing the mathematical love around, and certainly if someone else brings mathematics to the conversation then I’m happy to get involved. I’m just conscious that I don’t want to try to shoehorn it in at every opportunity. I think there’s a real skill in reading when and when not to talk about mathematics in company.
5. Do you think a brilliant maths teacher is born or made?
Definitely made. I am by no means the best teacher. I certainly didn’t start off with all the answers and I don’t have them now; I am, however, a much better teacher (or perhaps even learning facilitator) than I was when I started. I have developed a lot over the years.
I first began giving tutorials when I was a PhD student. The small-scale setting of tutorials was a good place to cut my teeth and it gave me a lot of confidence to talk about mathematics in front of other people – something which I had hardly done at all up to that point. When I was a post-doctoral researcher, I gave a few lectures to graduate students, which was a much more rigorous examination of my ability to hold together a mathematical argument. University lecturing was a whole different ball game and in truth it took me a couple of courses to become comfortable standing up in front of hundreds of students and delivering material in an accurate and engaging style. I was fortunate in Bath to be able to attend our internal teaching course – which is accredited through the higher education academy (HEA) – which enabled me to become a fellow of the HEA. The course provided me with so many techniques and approaches which I still use to this day. I also take the opportunities offered by the university to engage in teaching peer review, learning from my colleagues by observing them and being observed.
I’ve been fortunate that, in all the settings in which I’ve taught, the students have largely been engaged and keen to learn. I’ve very rarely had to deal with disciplinary issues or class control. In that respect my job is much easier than that of a schoolteacher, who might have to teach students who are unengaged and uninterested in their subject. School teachers of any subject have my undying respect.
6. What’s the most fun a mathematician can have?
I think the most fun a mathematician can have is the same as the most fun that anyone else can have. I think it’s important that we break down stereotypes and the misconceptions that mathematicians are somehow different or unusual and get their kicks in different ways than other people. The things I enjoy most are probably the same as many other people. I love playing five-a-side, I’m an avid supporter of Manchester City, I listen to music and I like spending time outdoors. The thing I probably enjoy doing most though is playing with my kids. You can completely forget about everything that’s going on in life when you’re engaged in a game with a five-year-old and a seven-year-old.
7. Do you have a favourite maths joke?
Infinitely many mathematicians walk into a bar. The first says, "I'll have a pint." The second says, "I'll have half a pint." The third says, "I'll have a quarter of a pint."
Before the fourth can ask for an eighth of a pint the barman stops them and pours out two pints.
The mathematicians complain, "That's all you're giving us? How drunk do you expect us to get on that?"
The bartender says, "Come on folks. Know your limits."
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