Getting the most out of Maths
Professor Garman preparing to teach in Mexico
Biochemistry students coming to Oxford next year can expect to get a very thorough grounding in Maths that will stand them in good stead for their course, thanks to the teaching skills of Professor Elspeth Garman. The Biochemistry Professor recently won an Oxford University 'Major Educator' Teaching Award for her excellent and innovative approach to teaching maths to new students.
'The issue is that Biochemistry at Oxford only demands A' Level Chemistry and does not demand A' Level Maths,' Professor Garman explains, 'It doesn't want to because it cuts down the clientèle and we feel that we can manage. I think it's right because I believe I can teach them this stuff even if sometimes they don't believe they can learn it.'
'It's not about intellectual ability because they're all very good. It's about psychology.'
It is important that students who arrive with only GCSE Maths are not disadvantaged. The task, Professor Garman says, is to ensure that students are given the foundations that will enable them to tackle the more mathematically-based areas of biochemistry. That can be a challenge, she admits. 'It's not about intellectual ability because they're all very good. It's about psychology.'
She teaches the first year students a 16-lecture course that covers over half the A' Level Maths syllabus. Backing up the lectures are Maths problem classes tutored by postgraduate students who are very enthusiastic to be involved.
Professor Garman's prize led to her being awarded a project grant that will be used to support the compilation of a companion booklet for the course. 'It will have lots of examples in it so that the students can use it as a handbook,' she explains, 'because there is no good textbook covering good biochemical examples.'
With some of her former postgraduate students
The teaching prize also recognises Professor Garman's work in promoting science nationally. She speaks regularly to schools and clubs. 'You never know when you're making a memory, as it were,' she muses, and recounts the story of a visit to a science club in Bristol where a handful of audience turned out to hear her one bitterly cold February night. Four months later, a physics student who had heard her speak that evening wrote and asked if he could come and work in her lab during the Summer holidays. He is now studying for a PhD in New York.
Professor Garman's own background makes her well suited to teaching maths. Her first experience of teaching was as a volunteer in a secondary school in Swaziland where she went for a 10-month stint after leaving school. She started her scientific career as a nuclear physicist, having help build and test the first Carbon-14 detector for the Turin Shroud, and then moved into Biochemistry. Her research focuses on improving the methods used by protein crystallographers so that they can get better biological information about the proteins they are studying. She and her group recently celebrated the culmination of several years' research when they had 5 papers published in a single issue of a journal.