The Phoenix Project

When I was about 14 I remember having a discussion with my dad about the merits of learning mathematical theorems. My dad, a secondary school Maths teacher his entire career, felt that a strong foundation in mathematical reasoning and logic would pay dividends forever. I however felt aggrieved that a subject I loved for teaching me methods, rather than facts, was forcing me to learn theorems by rote. I argued (read: whined) that I would never need to use Pythagoras’ theorem. My dad responded with calm erudition that I was advocating a utilitarian approach to education and pointed out that we never really know in advance which bits will prove important. I would love to think that I accepted this winning argument with good grace, but I suspect I huffed off muttering my unresolved objections.

This was probably one of the first times I thought about learning for learning’s sake. It is such a beautiful idea that it is easy to undervalue it’s corollary; learning for practical benefit. This manifests itself in two broad ways. Impact (about which REF says much) and engagement (about which REF says little). Engagement is about influencing the community around you in a broad way, quite apart from the papers that you publish. Engagement tells us to improve the lives of those around us using the knowledge we have been lucky enough to absorb.

Cardiff logo phoenixLet me tell you then about the Phoenix project (see footnote for one of my favourite anecdotes). The only of Cardiff University’s flagship engagement projects that is focussed outside of Wales (although it still benefits Wales), the Phoenix project works with the University of Namibia to help reduce poverty and promote health in Namibia. The project looks massive. It covers four different themes (1. Women, children and infectious diseases; 2. Science thinking; 3. Communications; 4. Over arching) with 20 different projects. About 100 academics from Cardiff University and University of Namibia are involved making it an impressive collaboration. The project is rigorous too, with a clear focus on measuring the impact made. All of this activity is made possible by a small but highly dedicated team: Prof Judith Hall, Nicola Pulman and Jennifer Lloyd.

I have joined to lead the Statistics theme for Phoenix. I can’t tell you how excited this makes me. You will know my feelings about the importance of statistics from previous posts and this project offers a real opportunity to make a difference elsewhere. In May I will join a Phoenix project delegation to Namibia to conduct a scoping review of the statistics need and to conduct one-to-one sessions with staff and postgrads. The aim is to identify what skills and techniques will be best suited to developing capacity at UNAM.

Pythagoras gif
Illustration of Pythagoras’ theorem

I cannot wait to meet the UNAM researchers and postgraduate students and gain their perspectives on what they value most statistically. I am especially keen to meet with Multidisciplinary Research Centre staff and share approaches and methodologies with them.

Who knows, I may even get to use Pythagoras’s theorem.





Footnote: from the flames


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