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Chris Green, CSIRO

Coaching teenagers to solve real world problems in a matter of days

There's a meme that goes along the lines of: "Another day has passed and I didn't use algebra once". But groups of high schoolers are flipping that idea on its head, and discovering how mathematics can be useful outside the classroom and can be turned into a future career.

In the space of just a few years, CSIRO Applied Mathematician Chris Green has hosted five small cohorts of high school students, as part of CSIRO's Virtual Work Experience program. Throughout the week-long initiative, Chris guides the students to use mathematics and computer modelling to solve a real-world problem. By giving the students a taste of mathematics as it applies out in the 'real' world, he hopes to open their minds about the career opportunities available that "use algebra every day".

The program is something Chris would have loved to join during his high school years. He didn't realise until university age that applied maths was even a career option – he simply hadn't been exposed to it. Now, through the work experience program, he is excited to help future scientists identify early on the career paths that interest them. The fact that he loves explaining things makes the whole experience even more enjoyable. "The students have all been very receptive…it's really rewarding," he says of participating in the program.

Dr Chris Green modelling buoyant CO2 flow with Python using invasion percolation.

Finding a project to suit a group of high schoolers can be a bit of a conundrum. While the students are clever and interested in the sciences, their knowledge and experience with coding and maths can vary wildly. Chris admits he had to think creatively to design a challenge that was approachable and engaging, able to be achieved without in-person supervision, and could be completed within a week. Chris has now run four different projects for the five cohorts he has been involved in. Each one has been inspired by real science that he reads about in papers and articles. The trick, he says, is to ask, "could we do that in a simple way?"

In the most recent program, Chris worked virtually with the student group to use computer modelling to reproduce published results from an experiment showing the movement of gas through a bed of sand. The project introduced the tech-loving teens to using computers to do the number crunching for them. He says they were fascinated that even as Year 10 students they could develop code that would solve a real-world problem. "When the [results] came up they were really excited; they realised they actually had gotten something that would happen in real life."

One of the keys to Chris' successful involvement in the program over the years has been to make it work for him. He blocks out time in his calendar for supervising the students online, which is typically 20 minutes or so at a time, spread throughout the 9-3 school day. To feel comfortable that the project will unfold as planned, he also does a run through ahead of time.

"I'll certainly do it again," says Chris. He's even fielding interest from his colleagues about participating, after having seen him speaking with his cohort of budding scientists during the work day.

You can introduce real science to young STEM enthusiasts too. Enquire about becoming a supervisor for CSIRO Virtual Work Experience programs today. Contact CSIRO Education & Outreach to find out more.

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