Fun with numbers

Although my main teaching is about ecology, conservation and sustainability, I do have a sideline: maths. Yes, maths!

It isn’t widely known, but ecologists tend to be mathematicians too. You see, when you start looking at natural systems – like forests or oceans – you discover that they are amazingly complex, with huge numbers of components, all of which interact with each other – either directly or indirectly. So, how can you possibly start to understand what’s gong on? Well, the answer includes the use of maths to examine things like amounts of energy transferred between organisms, numbers of individuals, numbers of species, growth of populations and individuals… I could go on.

In addition, anyone doing research in the sciences or social sciences needs to get to grips with mathematics in order to prove or disprove their hypotheses. There’s no point in conducting a brilliant experiment if you can’t analyse the data that you produce at the end. Does no-dig gardening really yield more produce? By conducting controlled experiments and analysing the data, we can come up with a definitive answer.

I was never great at pure maths, but I really enjoy statistics and analysing results. And so, with this in mind, I am teaching a course in the autumn entitled ‘Dealing with Data’ – it’s aimed at part-time learners studying for the Diploma in Field and Conservation Ecology in the School of Education and Lifelong Learning at Aberystwyth University, but anyone interested in collecting information about yields and how to tease out the meaning from the results would find it useful.

The problem is that there are lots of folks out there who are simply terrified by numbers and who freeze when confronted with mathematics. I try to make the whole process as stress-free as possible, and demonstrate why being able to use numbers is really useful. We will be using some learning tools that might be more familiar to primary school teachers, but can help everyone get to grips with mathematics:

Let's play with some numbers

Let’s play with some numbers

With these, we can learn about everything from addition to logarithms, from bar charts to histograms. I’m even considering using crochet to demonstrate geometric series. Never let it be said that I’m not creative in my classes!


This post is dedicated to the memory of Dr David Causton, who taught me more about statistics than anyone else in my life and encouraged me to teach others. David died on Tuesday, but his legacy lives on in all his students.


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  1. For the fleeting hours I spent in Dr Causton’s lectures I understood more about my most feared subject than at any other time. Unfortunately the understanding was always a thin thread held together only by his good teaching and it was generally lost to me about half an hour after each lecture. So maths is still a dark and evil stranger.
    A nice tribute to a great lecturer x (p.s. Hope wordpress permits me to post this comment)

    • Hurrah! Your words are no longer considered spam!
      Yes, David was a lovely man and helped many students through the quagmire of statistics during their degrees.. he will be sadly missed.

  2. I am so not a mathematician, but I adore statistics which I really get ! Good luck with the teaching!


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