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Over the past 25 years, hundreds of Cambridge students have donated thousands of hours helping to teach maths in local schools. By pairing up undergraduates passionate about maths with school students who need extra help – or extra challenges –...

Volunteering is about more than getting something to put on your CV – it’s about making a difference and giving something important back

Neil Kelly teaches maths at Chesterton Community College, a large comprehensive in north Cambridge. One of the aspects of his job he likes most is that no two days are the same. Each morning his email inbox is full of messages from colleagues and parents. Most of them relate to details of day-to-day life in a busy school, so a recent email came as a complete surprise.

He explained: “It was a message from a maths graduate who had come here to work with our pupils as a volunteer a couple of years ago when she was a student at the University of Cambridge. She was writing to tell me that the experience of working in the classroom at Chesterton had encouraged her to take a PGCE and that she was now teaching maths in a comprehensive in Essex. She wanted to thank us for giving her the chance to see what teaching was all about.”

Chesterton Community College is one of around 30 schools and colleges in Cambridge that take part in STIMULUS. Part of the Millennium Maths Project, STIMULUS gives University of Cambridge undergraduates the chance to go into classrooms and help children and young people of all abilities with their maths and science.

The programme, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, was set up by Toni Beardon, then a lecturer in the Faculty of Education. Its aim has remained the same: not simply to produce the teachers of the future but also to enable undergraduates to inspire younger students to get involved in maths and science.

Each year STIMULUS gives around 250 Cambridge undergraduates the opportunity to work in a local school or college supporting maths and science teaching. Approximately 40 per cent of the students who take part are doing degrees in science, 20 per cent are studying maths and the remainder a variety of other subjects. The schools they work in range from primary to sixth form, and the majority are in the state sector.

All the undergraduates who sign up for the programme are partnered with schools, their age group preferences taken into account, and carefully checked according to all the legislation governing health and safety and child protection issues. Some volunteers go into their partner school for one term only, others for two terms.

Kelly says that the STIMULUS participants who volunteer at Chesterton contribute in many different ways to teaching in the maths and science departments. “They assist in the classroom, helping with classwork and revision, they work with small groups, and they also work with pupils one-to-one. They might be helping pupils who struggle academically but equally they might be challenging those who need stretching,” he explains.

“Before we get a new group of STIMULUS undergraduates at the start of the school year, I give the scheme a bit of a push and tell our pupils just how lucky they are to have University of Cambridge students coming in to work with them. It’s a fantastic chance for our pupils to interact with someone studying maths or science at a high level – and get a taste of their enthusiasm. We give STIMULUS volunteers a tour of the school and a brief introduction, and they quickly find their feet in the classroom.”

Breaking concepts down

One of the scheme’s strengths is that benefits work both ways. For the past two years STIMULUS has been run by Rob Percival, who teaches maths at the Perse School for Girls and was a volunteer 12 years ago when he was studying maths at Cambridge. “The experience of studying at Cambridge is highly demanding and intense – and taking part in STIMULUS provides a valuable chance to step out of that Cambridge bubble once a week,” he says.

“When I was at Cambridge reading maths, and already interested in going into teaching, I really hadn’t thought how difficult it would be to explain a fairly straightforward concept to a Year 10 pupil who wasn’t remotely interested in maths. My experience of working at Netherhall School really helped me to focus on how to break a concept down into easily accessible steps and encouraged me to take up a career in teaching.”

Each year Percival sees the latest cohort of STIMULUS volunteers grow in confidence as they learn how to interact with pupils and how to communicate clearly. He said: “Last term I had a third-year maths undergraduate assisting in my Year 7 classes. Generally, he helped with class assignments, moving between pupils to check they were on track. During the last session he gave a ten-minute lesson on calculating the area of a triangle. It wasn’t perfect but he did really well and kept the attention of the whole class.”

Current maths undergraduate Zoe Wyatt chose to work with younger pupils and she was partnered with Queen Edith’s Primary School where she was assigned a group of six pupils who were showing a particular flair for numbers. “I worked with them for 45 minutes once a week during the lunch break and I was able to decide with them what to cover. One of them had a parent who was doing extra maths with her and the others wanted to tackle some of the topics she mentioned. They were particularly thrilled by the idea of multiplying negative numbers,” she said.

“The group was great fun to be with. I strongly believe that I and others have a real responsibility to impart our enthusiasm for maths, a subject that often isn’t too popular at school which is a huge shame. I absolutely love teaching and especially making maths exciting. I’m planning a career in maths and particularly want to lecture and teach at university level.”

Kevin Buzzard, now a professor of pure mathematics at Imperial College London, was one of the first STIMULUS volunteers. In 1989 he went into a primary school once a week for a term and did some basic maths with a class of eight-year-olds. He says: “My highlight was definitely the time I spent chatting to the kids and getting to know how they thought. I now have three children of my own and still enjoy teaching this young age group. I probably got my job at Imperial on the strength of my research rather than my teaching ability, so I don’t know if STIMULUS really affected my life trajectory but I recently won a university award for teaching.”

The process of making maths accessible on a one-to-one basis is immensely valuable, as current Cambridge student Carina Negreanu discovered when she volunteered at the Manor School, a small comprehensive, and the independent Perse School for Girls. “One of the pupils I helped was clearly extremely bright but not at all focused. We worked together for several weeks, doing questions in different ways, and maths started to become really interesting. GCSEs no longer seemed a problem and university became an option,” she said.

“I’m doing applied maths, and hope to do a PhD in astrophysics, so STIMULUS is good for me too. It helps to refresh the maths that I haven’t used for five years. Volunteering is about much more than simply getting something to put on your CV – it’s about making a real difference and giving something important back to young people at a point when so many opportunities are opening up for them.”

The continued success of STIMULUS is testament to the vision behind it. When she set it up, Toni Beardon was motivated by the idea that the University of Cambridge should connect with the local community and that STIMULUS would be a win-win activity with benefits to all involved. “Over the years many students have told me how much they looked forward to their STIMULUS visits to school and that the experience helped them to develop their interpersonal skills,” she said.

And it’s a vision that has connected Cambridge with communities thousands of miles away. After 20 years teaching at Cambridge, and taking a leading role in setting up other Millennium Maths Projects, Beardon retired and became a volunteer in Africa. Over the last decade she has built the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences Enrichment Centre which trains local teachers using volunteer lecturers from Cambridge and around the world.


19 June 2013