Written by Fiona Livy for U:Mag, republished here with permission.
“Nobody, really, in the grand scheme of their life cares that much about the area of a triangle.” Fair call, Stephen Woodcock.
Young, witty and forthright, Woodcock isn’t your stereotypical mathematician. Nor has he ever been. Born and raised in Yorkshire, England, the 35-year-old Senior Lecturer admits he was good at maths as a child, “but not any more than other kids. I wasn’t like some weird kid who spends all his day doing jigsaws or doing a Rubik’s Cube in five seconds.” No. Woodcock’s first successful attempt at the Rubik’s Cube was much more recent and took at least an hour. “It was over Christmas one year. I was a bit bored, so I decided to read up on an algorithm. I wanted to understand it and then see if I could implement it.”
Today, Woodcock enjoys sharing his love for problem solving with his students. His aim is to get them away from rote learning and pattern recognition and focused on actually understanding problems before solving them. In the real world, says Woodcock, “Problems don’t come to you nicely-packaged and nicely-formulated. If all you can do is follow a routine where it’s laid out exactly how you expect it then you’re basically a calculator who can catch a cold. And that’s obviously not terribly useful or employable.” That’s why four years ago Woodcock began to shake up the first-year mathematics curriculum across three subjects – Introduction to Linear Dynamical Systems, Probability and Random Variables, and Simulation Modelling. It included adding activities that involve game theory, coding cryptography and Monopoly. Woodcock’s aim is to create classes that are “very different to anything you do in high school”.
“A lot of problem-solving comes down to sense-checking and estimation,” explains Woodcock. “If you walk in and do your weekly grocery shopping and go through the till and rack up a $10 billion bill, that’s wrong. If the bill comes up as minus $30, it’s wrong. If it’s somewhere between $100 and $200, it’s plausible.” So how does the Monopoly exercise work? Quite simply, students have to name and justify which square they think players are most likely to land on. “While an answer to a question is important, the process is, in the long run, more important,” says Woodcock. “That’s the more transferrable skill and the more research-like thinking.”
It’s one of the reasons why, in September, Woodcock received a Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning at the 2017 Australian Awards for University Teaching. Though he acknowledges students need to study more than just games during their degree, Woodcock admits “They are bloody good fun to do on the side!” Like the articles he writes for The Conversation, where he covers topics such as how to win your office footy tipping comp and how predictable the Oscars really are.
Day-to-day though, the applied mathematician says, only half joking, “I work with basically everybody that’ll speak to me”. Woodcock’s research sees sport scientists, marine scientists, environmental scientists, environmental engineers, physical geographers, and others bring “whatever kind of strange data that they’ve got”. His job is to put the data into context, then solve their problem. Outside of work, it’s more fun and games. But this time, soccer. “It’s been 14 years since I last played,” laughs Woodcock. “I’ve been able to come out of retirement in the over-35s. I kind of feel like I’m in amazing shape, but I’m not. I’m just playing against people who are 15 years older than me!”