Teaching students to solve real-world problems
Dr Stephen Woodcock, Senior Lecturer in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, has been recognised in the 2017 Australian Awards for University Teaching. His award was for the development of curricula and resources to foster enquiry-oriented and research inspired thinking in the applied mathematical sciences.
“Mathematics is not just about getting the answer, it’s about learning the process of putting a problem in a real world context and then being able to solve it,” said Dr Woodcock, who has developed a series of exercises for his students that encourage their intuition and reward independent thought.
This “enquiry-orientated” thinking, Dr Woodwock argues, is an invaluable asset to any graduate entering the workplace in an increasingly automated world.
“If all you can do is a routine that’s formulated the same way every time, you’re basically a fleshy calculator that can get the flu—a computer could replace you very easily,” he said.
“What computers don’t do is create an open dialogue with other people working on the problem who understand the context where the mathematical model is being applied.”
Dr Woodcock challenges his students by asking them to solve familiar problems in ways they haven’t seen before. This includes sometimes giving them the answer first and asking them to figure out the problem.
“It’s about proper skills development and not just routine learning,” he said. “That’s why I never take a problem from a textbook, I always create them for the students myself.
“Students know a lot more than they think they do,” Dr Woodcock said.
My teaching style is about getting students to have that confidence so that even if they don’t know the answer, they can at least estimate what the answer might be, particularly in very applied problems.
“That’s a skill that most students don’t develop in high school.”
In collaboration with partners across a diverse range of disciplines, Dr Woodcock is also working on a number of research projects. His mathematics has been used to answer real world questions about the impact of STDS on human fertility, the rates of toxicity in oyster farms, and the early predictors of young Belgian football players becoming professionals.
“Often really clever mathematics has sat on the shelf and hasn't really had the impact that it might in an applied context,” Dr Woodcock said.
“I'd rather be building on existing knowledge that's already out there and apply it in contexts where it hasn't been used before. Mathematics can be quite surprising that way.”
You can hear Dr Woodcoock Science in Focus talk more about the surprising and paradoxical nature of mathematics below.