As a a volunteer for CSIRO’s Mathematicians in Schools Program, I was asked to give a talk on fractals to girls in grade 9 at a school in Sydney.

I am not an expert on fractals, but as a doctoral candidate in mathematics, I figured I knew more than the the girls would, so I thought, why not? And I agreed.

This school was participating in the MegaMenger project. Their teacher wanted me to motivate the study of fractals by talking about some real world applications. I did talk about the usual suspects – animation, modeling natural systems etc. But I also managed to sneak in a point that mathematics educators always make – that ” what is this good for”, is not the right question to ask in a maths class. Paul Lockhart in his famous essay says it better than I could. But I like to extend his lament to the whole of education – how will this help me get a job is not quite the question that should be uppermost on young minds. The gifts of education are rather more intangible – curiosity and the ability to learn things, that’s what is going to get you a job. I know that these are not things one could put in one’s CV, but then, these are teens who have not yet outgrown their love for Beiber. And yet, theirs are the loudest voices in that dreaded chorus – “why are we doing this? When are we ever going to use it?”.

My rant aside, I think the activity went well. Here’s an appraisal of what worked and what didn’t.

What worked – I am usually sceptical of giving presentations to young students, as there’s no surer way of putting them to sleep. But this one was a talk with just a picture on each slide, with me talking around the picture. I also put in a fractal paper cutting activity. I was afraid that the students might find it boring, but everyone eagerly participated.

What didn’t – I did ask them a bunch of questions – what other examples of fractals they could think of, where did they think fractals could be applied etc. In hindsight, I think it would have been better to tie their answers into a discussion. Instead of accepting one workd answers, I should have asked them to elaborate.