Back in the depths of last winter, I started investigating ways that I might bring together some of my colleagues in Performing Arts – the department where I did my Ph.D. – and the Faculty of Science and Engineering, where I teach. It took a while, but the idea is now starting to bear fruit. We began with a workshop for A-level maths and science students on Imaginary Numbers, which took place at Thornton Science Park a couple of weeks ago.

We welcomed about 20 students and their teachers from local schools for a full day of varied activities on the theme of Imaginary Numbers. This included the sort of thing you might expect at Thornton Science Park , including a session in the Electrical and Electronic Engineering lab looking at the relationship between sinusoidal waves, complex numbers, and sound. (The TWSU DIY Synth proved to be particularly popular there!) The thing which really made the day different, and I believe also really helped to make it both enjoyable and engaging, was the contribution in the morning from Ed Morris and Phil Goss, two University of Chester graduates who now run a theatre company called 2Engage. They do a lot of educational theatre work, and I believed they could help us to present the challenging topic of complex numbers in a less threatening way, and also give students a perspective they might not get elsewhere.

I think it’s fair to say the plan worked. Between us we designed a couple of comic sketches, with associated activities, designed to put complex numbers into historical perspective, and also give a background to the two common notations for complex numbers (i.e., polar and cartesian). Students found themselves wearing sheep masks for the former, and directing one another around masking-tape grids on the floor for the latter. They also laughed quite a lot – fortunately in more or less the places where we’d hoped they would – and took home a custom-made fridge magnet each, to remind them of both the day and the principles we’d worked on understanding together. Feedback for the day was excellent from all concerned, and I’m really looking forward to doing more sessions along similar lines in the future. In the meantime, I heartily recommend 2Engage to anyone out there looking for educational theatre, and certainly not just on scientific topics. They did an excellent job.

Update: January 2018 – Angela and I produced a poster based on this session, which was presented at the Higher Education Academy STEM Conference at Newcastle University.