The Long Lost Summer

What to do in lockdown to inspire and prepare you for a degree in Engineering Mathematics or related discipline.

 

One of the things that is unique about a degree programme in engineering mathematics is its hands on approach to problem solving using mathematics and data science. For example, in our programme at the University of Bristol, by third year the students work in teams to solve real up-to-the minute, open problems posed by industry or those outside our Department. Each team works on three unique problems throughout year. Recent examples have come from Royal Mail, EDF, BMW Mini, Bloomberg, Hargreaves Lansdown, LV insurance, various social enterprises and data science start ups.

eng_maths_students

Prof. Eddie Wilson teaching an Engineering Mathematics workshop at Bristol University

This may all sound either exciting or daunting, depending on your point of view, or the swing of your mood in these unprecedented times. Unsurprisingly, increasingly I find students who are hoping to come on our programme are asking: “What can I do to prepare given that we are are lockdown?”.

For most UK-based students in 2020, summer exams have been canceled and there are no formal lessons any more. Other students due to sit exams in 2021 are worried about lost preparation time. More generally, many people’s experience with lockdown has been one of worry, fear or just plain boredom. Most people I know have a crazy feeling that they want to be productive in their studies, or in their hobbies, or sports, but instead seem to be living their own unfulfilling version of Groundhog Day.

Even without the strangeness that 2020 has brought many prospective students ask each year: “what should I do with my Summer?”

Well, I have always thought “should” is a dangerous word, born out of a sense of guilt, and nearly always leading to unfulfillment: I *should* read the complete works of Shakespeare; I *should* keep my room tidy; I *should* study more. A better question is “what *could* you do…?”

The answer I would give to that is there is an interesting world out there; go find some stuff. I know that in 2020, travel is out of the question for many of us. But you can still explore in many other
ways. Read. Paint. Draw. Cook, Create music. Write a short story. Make stuff. Repair stiff. Take up bird-watching. Run, Cycle. Walk. Study local history. Follow your curiosity. Volunteer. Campaign, Find a job. Connect with lonely people. Do something that makes you feel good about your self. Or, if you feel like you suck at everything, that’s OK; just hang out, be a good friend or family member. And there is absolutely no shame in playing online computer games for many hours a day, or becoming addicted to box sets, podcasts or social media.

But what could you do that would help prepare for your degree and beyond? What if you want to flex your mathematical or engineering muscles a bit?

Learning at degree level is less about cramming and getting good at passing exams, and more about understanding. Try reading up on some cool stuff. Wikipedia is never a bad place to start. Don’t worry if stuff goes over your head. There is no shame in that, we tend to find at University that it is the third or fourth time you hear about a concept that it really sticks.

One text book used a lot in first year in the Bristol degree is “Modern Engineering Mathematics” by G James (no need to have a version with MyMathlab). Some copies are available second hand. The 4th or 5th edition should be fine. The early chapters should give you a good brush up on A-level Maths. Most of the rest of the book does not go much beyond Further Maths. But there are lots of good examples you can get your teeth into to stay up to speed.

You might also like to try an online course that teaches you to code in python. There are numerous things out there. Maybe you learned some coding at school. Maybe you did not. Don’t worry, Universities don’t expect you to have done any coding whatsoever before you arrive. But learning some basic coding from a YouTube Video can be fun. Perhaps you could set yourself a little project. For example, things like the R-number are in the news at the moment. What is it? How could you model it? Can you download some data and do some manipulation of that data to find the R-number?

Or you could set yourself a challenge to find out stuff. What is so-called deep learning? How on earth does DNA contain the code of life? How does air-traffic control work and how could it become autonomous? How do neurons work? How does the National Grid work and what would it take to have a true smart grid?

Learning to touch type on a computer keyboard is a great skill to bring to Uni. There are again lots of online courses.

But as I said at the opening, a key part of a degree in Engineering Mathematics is the experience open-ended problem solving. Our own website has interesting open-ended problems to try, pitched at a pre-Uni level — see theĀ Teaching Resources tab.

eng_maths_exercises

An example problem by Prof. Alan Champneys as part of the Engineering Mathametics programme

Given them a go. These are designed to be worked on in teams. Work on them together with your classmates. Get your teacher to help. Set these up as competition. You could also look at popular mathematics, engineering and data science websites. For example: plus.maths.org contains some excellent stories about mathematics, uses of mathematics, history of mathematics and many other things embodied in our degree. There are introductions to many many topics and ideas that transcend mathematics into the world of data a modelling the world around is.

For more computing-oriented problems we can also recommend Project Euler at projecteuler.net

Many of these questions are quite hard, but again you could form a team with mates to try to solve some of the easier ones and get on the worldwide leaderboard.

Whatever you do with your time, just remember that University education is a fresh start. We do not expect you to be prepared at all. Many people come to University after a bit of a gap having remembered nothing they learned at School. They still thrive, and so will you!