Maths across the curriculum with Robert McGregor

Robert McGregor, Director and founder of STEAM Powered Education, discusses top tips to help primary teachers effectively integrate maths concepts into subjects beyond maths, such as english, science, or art. As well, he discusses why it is key to develop the foundations of maths learning in primary and why introducing STEAM across primary can provide a more holistic approach to learning.

Q - What are your top tips to help primary teachers effectively integrate maths concepts into subjects beyond maths, such as english, science, or art?

I use a number of strategies when teaching maths in my STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths) clubs and workshops. I enjoy integrating mathematics naturally into STEAM activities. For instance, while teaching Key Stage 2 children, we worked on creating runways for model aircraft.

We wanted to include working runway lights, and I demonstrated the importance of using basic mathematics to accurately drill holes in the right places. I taught them how to measure the runway distance using a ruler and explained that we only had 20 lights. We needed to divide them in half, determine the number of lights on each side, and allocate some at the end of the runway.

After discussion, we agreed on having 6 lights on each side and 8 on the runway. Since the runway was 35cm long, I asked them to calculate how many lights we could have.

In another activity using WeDo 2.0 Educational Robotics Lego, we focused on making a buggy go faster. This introduced Year 6 children to the concept of ratio. I explained that using cogs correctly can increase the buggy's speed — for example, attaching a large cog to the motor and a small cog to the wheels. To illustrate this, I referred to a book on Lego gearing by Yoshihito Isogawa called 'The LEGO Power Functions Idea Book, Vol. 1: Machines and Mechanisms'. We explored the idea that a cog four times larger than a small cog would make one turn on the large cog equivalent to four turns on the small cog (1:4 ratio).

The book showcases various cogs and ratios that can be used to make mechanisms go faster. It's inspiring for children to witness the application of these concepts. The idea also applies to pulley wheels and rubber bands connected from the motor to the wheels. I like to mention to the children that the gears on their bicycles operate in a similar way.

I would like to further develop the teaching of these concepts, although it's nice to see them get wildly excited as some of them eagerly search for the largest and smallest cogs to put on their buggies. However, there is a limit to this concept as using enormous cogs can strain the motor. This serves as another learning moment and gives them something to contemplate.

Q - Why is it key to develop the foundations of maths learning in primary?

In my view, the answer is simple: not everyone finds maths interesting when it's taught in isolation. Many children, even if they can't express it clearly, seek answers to the question of why they study maths.

This question typically emerges towards the end of Key Stage 2. Children become intrigued by money because it serves a purpose in their lives - no understanding of function, no interest! While younger children may simply comply with learning maths, as they grow older they develop more questions and a greater need for answers. We must adapt our teaching to address these questions about the practical applications of maths.

I think Key Stage 1 children would benefit from concrete examples of how maths functions, which can be achieved through role-play games. In Key Stage 2, emphasis should be placed on engaging students in practical activities with challenges. As for upper Key Stage 2, more in-depth explanations should be provided regarding how maths applies to the world beyond the classroom.

I also think that exploring the history of maths is important. What were the lives of famous mathematicians like? How and why did individuals like Pythagoras develop their ideas? Engaging in discussions about these individuals and their mathematical concepts is an excellent approach to connecting maths to real people, stimulating children's curiosity, and encouraging them to think in a mathematical way.

Q - Are we seeing an increase in STEAM being used across primary (joining together Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths) to provide a more holistic approach to learning?

There is a general willingness in most schools to introduce STEAM after-school clubs. Some schools even allow me to incorporate STEAM activities into the regular curriculum on my supply teaching days. However, there are several difficulties that arise:

1. Integration into the daily curriculum — apart from Design Technology, the schools I have worked in have not made the decision to fully integrate STEAM into their daily curriculum. Although two schools allow me to bring STEAM equipment for occasional afternoon activities, it is not a consistent part of their curriculum.
2. Financial constraints — some schools prefer not to charge parents for after-school clubs and instead try to cover the costs through the school budget. However, initial enthusiasm often fades when the invoice arrives. In fact, two schools have turned down the club due to financial limitations.
3. Cost of STEAM activities — STEAM activities can be expensive, although I make every effort to keep prices low by utilising recycled materials like wood and household items. However, the more advanced robotic Lego kits, for example, come at a significant cost. This poses a challenge for many schools, especially those with limited budgets.
4. Limited adoption of STEAM — while one particular school I work in actively engages in STEAM activities and has even achieved recognition in a VEX STEAM competition, it seems that many schools are not fully embracing STEAM. The level of investment often depends on the interest of the Head and staff members, as well as the availability of sufficient funds, which are currently in short supply.
5. Need for nationwide initiatives — in 2006, Sir Ken Robinson, an educational advisor, emphasised the importance of pushing our curriculum to foster creativity. Despite politicians' aspirations to transform our country into a high-tech hub, the nationwide initiatives required to achieve this goal have not fully materialised.

In my opinion, STEAM inspires creativity, and it is crucial to genuinely incorporate these subjects into the current curriculum. Unfortunately, for many schools, this often feels like a mere tick-box exercise rather than an integrated subject. Budgets for STEAM are largely non-existent, making it challenging for state schools to afford the resources that can bring STEAM to life.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

• Name: Robert McGregor
• Role: Director and founder of STEAM Powered Education
• Brief summary of your career: I’ve been a teacher for 28 years. I’ve taught four different curriculums throughout the UK and the world. I recently started a company dedicated to providing after-school clubs and holiday workshops for STEM and STEAM activities and projects as I believe we, as a society, are losing practical skills that are essential for our lives. I also believe that providing these helps children to enter careers in engineering and with STEM companies.
• What’s your favourite thing about maths? Its application and the realisation that it is how the world is connected through maths.
• Why does maths matter? It’s a wonderful tool to have when applying it to problems.
• What do the children/young people you work with enjoy most about maths? Learning about how maths works and how it can be applied.

Additional resources and support from Pearson

Teaching tools are available to support pictorial manipulatives, for example, Power Maths.

Our Diversity and Inclusion poster series showcases key mathematicians who have inspired us and positively impacted the way that we live today. Featured individuals range from Katherine Johnson, the first African-American woman to work as a NASA scientist, to Al-Khwarizmi, the man who is considered to have written the first book on algebra.

Pearson has a range of resources that will help make maths learning fun. This includes Power Maths and Maths Flex, which help learners become maths masters.