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Inspiring teenagers to pursue maths further

Published: Jun 11, 2019 3 min read

STEM learning

‘What’s the point of Pythagoras Miss?  He’s been dead for more than 2000 years!’ It’s the sort of question that every teacher dreads, though teenagers have every right to ask it. 

The answer: ‘Because it will help you get a good grade in GCSE’ might be true, but it’s not a response likely to encourage the reluctant student to pursue maths further. What most teenagers want is an answer that makes them curious to know more.

One person who can tell them about a fascinating application for Pythagoras is Dr John Roberts, a structural engineer at Jacobs UK. John designs world famous leisure rides: he was the engineer behind the PepsiMax rollercoaster in Blackpool, the i360 in Brighton and – perhaps most famously – the London ride that is now known as the London Eye.

As an engineer, Roberts uses GCSE and A Level maths ideas all the time – and he used Pythagoras when he was erecting the London Eye. The giant ride was actually built ‘horizontally’, lying flat on barges on the River Thames, and it was then hoisted into the vertical position using cables. To start with, the cable was at an angle of 45 degrees, so while the downward force on the structure was 1,000 tons, the tension in the cable had to be Ö2 times as big.  How do we know? Because in a triangle of forces, Pythagoras can be used to work out the force in the ‘hypotenuse’.


Triangle of forces when the London Eye was lifted


John is one of the regular speakers at Maths Inspiration, theatre-based lecture shows that reveal to 15-17 year olds how the maths they are learning is relevant beyond exams. Every show features three speakers talking about different ways in which they’ve used the maths they learned at school in their later careers.

Regular Maths Inspiration speakers have included Hannah Fry, Matt Parker, Jen Rogers and Colin Wright, talking engagingly about everything from the detection of serial killers to the invention of juggling tricks.

Maths Inspiration shows run for about 2 ½ hours (with a short interval) and are held in atmospheric theatres.  It all helps to ensure that this is an experience that your students won’t forget. After a Maths Inspiration trip, they will go away with a better understanding of how maths will fit into their future world. 

Find out which show is closest to you at: www.mathsinspiration.com/summer-2019

Inspire your STEM Club

Related CPD - Mastering mathematics at key stage 3