SEX OF SEAGULLS SOLVED USING MATHS

Issue date: 18 February 2003


ISSUE DATE: 18/02/03

The Weston Schools Maths Challenge – first round at UWE

School pupils from four Weston-Super-Mare schools will present their solutions to a maths problem involving establishing the sex of seagull chicks using measurements, at the University of the West of England on Wednesday 19 February.

The Weston Maths Challenge is now in its second year. School pupils attend masterclasses at UWE and then compete against each other over a number of challenges set to them by Maths experts at the university. The exercise is designed to stimulate the most able pupils and to encourage them to consider the intellectual challenge that they might enjoy if they opt to study Mathematics at degree level.

Alison Hooper, UWE’s Head of Mathematical Sciences said, “I can think of no better way of offering encouragement to mathematically keen and able students in our local schools. The Maths challenge not only enriches the GCSE curriculum of the students concerned, but it gives them at taste of the intellectual stimulus they can expect to enjoy if they pursue a mathematically orientated course at university.”

John Cobby, Senior Lecturer in Maths, said, “The problem we have set is how it is possible to determine the sex of a seagull from two or three simple measurements. A friend of mine, studies the migratory patterns of black backed gulls and places rings on the gulls when they are chicks in nests on the rooftops of Bristol. He then observes their migration to places such as Portugal and North Africa in the winter, and back again to Bristol in the spring. It is very difficult to determine the sex of a chick although in general size (as in most species) gives a clue. So he makes three measurements on each chick: the length of their head, bill depth and wing length.”

The school children were given paper gulls (rectangular pieces of paper – some blue representing the male birds, some pink representing the females and some white ones.) The task was to make measurements on the coloured pieces of paper and to combine these measurements in some way to provide a method of predicting whether a bird was male or female. Hence they could predict the sex of the white pieces of paper. This exercise should have helped them with the rest of the challenge.

They were also given the full set of original data (484 birds) taken by Peter Rock with three measurements on an Excel spreadsheet and asked to devise a method to predict the sex of the chicks. The birds had been sexed using DNA techniques (from a small piece of feather). They were given the sex of 464 of the birds and asked to predict the sex of the remaining 20.

Chris Leonard, the Project Director of Weston Education Achievement Zone (WEAZ) will be presenting Certificates of Participation and prizes to the pupils when they show their methods and results on Wednesday, 19 February. He says, “UWE's Maths Challenge has quickly established itself as a powerful mechanism for raising the aspirations and achievement levels of Year 10 pupils in the Weston area. The School pupils have gained first hand experience of what it is like to study mathematics at a university. For the majority of pupils this will be the first time that they have had the opportunity to visit a university. For many young people this activity will completely change the way that that they view themselves and their expectations of the future."

Christopher Croudace, Educational Initiatives co-ordinator at UWE, said, “This is one of those rare activities in which everyone taking part gains, and I really hope that such links between UWE staff and local schools expand and increase until they become a standard aspect of the educational scene.”

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