Sept. 28, 2021

PhD student seeks to demystify mathematics through fun outreach initiatives

Ryan Morrill describes math as being like art and science mixed together
Ryan Morrill
PhD student Ryan Morrill.

Finding creativity in mathematics, a discipline typically hailed as one holding the most absolute truths, may seem like a difficult task. However, math is not all algebra, trigonometry, and quadratic equations; it’s inherent in music, in art, in construction, in baking, and in fun games like Sudoku.

Ryan Morrill is a PhD student researching number theory in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, and has been passionate about math outreach since his days as an undergraduate at the University of Alberta. When he was a student looking for summer research opportunities, his supervisor asked him if he would be interested in leading a ‘Math Circle’ for middle school- and junior high school-aged kids. Morrill started a new Math Circle when he arrived at UCalgary for his PhD studies, and has been continuing it online since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020.

Math Circle topics ranged from the more instructional — such as explaining a field of math theory, definitions, and facts — to fun games that help the participants hone their logical reasoning and problem-solving skills.

“I like to think of math, especially recreational math as being like very playful,” he says. “You can try one thing, and if it doesn’t work, you can think about why it didn’t work and try something else. You can play around with it and see what comes out. You can ask whatever questions you want — there’s no limit. So it’s almost like an art and science mixed together.

"The truth of falseness of the statements is very rigorous, but the way you get there can involve a lot of creativity and personality.”

Creativity and exploration can bring joy into mathematics

Morrill also started another outreach program for elementary schools, where he and other volunteers visit classrooms and play math games with the students. He says that the most rewarding part is watching the students form their own strategies to succeed in the games.

“As the kids get comfortable playing, they’ll form their own strategies to win the games and test them against other people. They have loads of fun with it, and are surprised when we tell them that they’ve been doing math and taking part in the mathematical process the whole time!”

His goal in teaching these outreach programs, he says, is to demystify mathematics and get rid of the assumption that math is only about arithmetic and intimidating concepts.

I think some people get the wrong idea about math. They think it’s all about adding and subtracting, or a bunch of rules that you just have to accept. But what I try to do, especially in the math circle, is trying to show them that there is this other side of math involves problem solving, logic, exploration, and creativity.

Recreational math, he says, is not the anxiety-inducing “math minutes” many remember from their elementary school days. While some may struggle with certain areas, like arithmetic, there are many other areas of mathematics in which students could find success and enjoyment.

“I think recreational math is a really wonderful way of circumventing the negative opinions about math. It’s also very useful to think about how any time you’re doing science you’re going to use to use math in one way or another. I think that’s extremely useful for everyone to know.”

Annual Louise and Richard K. Guy Lecture to be held Sept. 29

Richard and Louise Guy

Richard and Louise Guy

The Louise and Richard K. Guy Lecture Series, hosted by the Department of Mathematics and Statistics in honour of the late professor emeritus Dr. Richard Guy, celebrates the joy of discovery and wonder in mathematics for everyone.

The lecture series was a 90th birthday present from Louise Guy to Richard, a strong proponent of recreational math, in recognition of his love of mathematics and his desire to share his passion with the world. Guy passed away in early March 2020 at the age of 103. The lecture is held at the end of September, to coincide with his birthday on Sept. 30.

This year’s topic, presented by Dr. Ben Green, PhD, of Oxford University, focuses on Guy’s book, Unsolved Problems in Number Theory.

Registration is now open. 

The Department of Mathematics and Statistics leads a number of outreach initiatives, including the Math Circle, Math Nites, and Girls Excel in Math (GEM). Learn more