The idea for this trip was conceived two years ago when I put my holiday pictures into a Further Maths fertile question about hyperbolic functions. Antoni Gaudí used these functions to design the incredible vaulted ceilings in his masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia.
However, from the outset the objectives of the trip were two-fold: to allow the students the opportunity to see this maths in action, bringing their lessons to life, but also to push their boundaries more generally and to prepare them for independent travel in the future. On both these measures the trip was an unequivocal success.
The Journey there
Our trip began on Friday the 13th and this proved to be unlucky as our flight was delayed by almost four hours. This posed a good first test for the students, which they passed with impressive stoicism and ingenuity, sneakily unplugging a vending machine so that they could huddle round and watch Love Island on their phones. However, it was a relief to all involved when we arrived at the hostel at 5.00am following an eye-opening amble down Las Ramblas.
Day One – Exploring the city
Our late night didn’t stop us as we were up at 10am to explore Barcelona. Firstly, Mr Ding set the students a series of mathematical team challenges. To begin with, the students had to work together to find obscure items in the world-famous Mercat de la Boqueria and negotiate the lowest price in their fledgling Spanish. The bravest pupils then shared some ‘salt & vinegar crickets’ before Aryan Gurung stole the show by eating a lolly with a scorpion at the centre.
We then started to loosen the reigns as the students crossed the Barrio Gotico independently, completing a devilish mathematical treasure hunt on the way (counting flags and lampposts is maths, right?). We ended the day on the beach where students and staff splashed around in the Mediterranean and then tucked into a takeaway as the sun went down.
“I also loved our visit to the beach where we played volleyball and frisbee in the water. It felt really good to get in the cool water after a hot day of exploring.” Aryan
However, despite a measly four hours of sleep many of the students were still keen for more. After a quick turnaround at the hostel, a smaller group jumped on the metro in a dash to catch the Magic Fountain display at 10pm. The scale of the show exceeded any of our expectations, but we rode our luck further, discovering that the art gallery at the top of the hill was open late for a special event. Not many of the students had been around an art gallery so late before, but their appetite for new experiences carried them through.
Day Two – Getting to know Gaudí
On Sunday we climbed the heights of Parc Guell to soak up the breathtaking view over Barcelona and then walked down to the main attraction - La Sagrada Familia. Here the students learned about how the architect Gaudí used mathematics to harness light and sound and make La Sagrada Familia famous throughout the world. My own highlight was overhearing a conversation between Kieran Stephens and Mr Ding where they were discussing what they remembered from maths lessons about La Sagrada Familia. Being able to bring mathematics alive in this way is what makes Ark a maths specialist school.
Following the successful formula from day one, our day ended on the beach with some very competitive volleyball and an impromptu yoga lesson, courtesy of Suchita. Unfortunately, there was a minor mishap as Maher plunged into the ocean and almost immediately split open his toe on a submerged rock. Fortunately Miss Iliffe was on hand to communicate with the Spanish life guards, finding out that the nearest hospital was only a two minute walk away.
Maher was so calm and after seven stitches, was back on his feet and asking for pizza.
Day Three – Maths Museum and Flamenco
After the excitement of Sunday the students were up bright and early to visit the MMACA - Catalonia’s museum of mathematics. This proved to better than we could possibly hope, with a passionate guide and an enormous range of practical activities and puzzles for them to get stuck into. The highlight was an hour-long workshop where the students worked together to build a series of domes using tessellating patterns first discovered by Leonardo Da Vinci.
“One of my favourite parts of the trip was the visit to the maths museum where we solved numerous mind boggling puzzles and also beat the record for the most parts used to build a leonardome.” Aryan
“My best bit from the trip was the maths museum as it had lots of interesting challenges which I had not seen before.” Nikul
We followed the visit to the museum with a tapas feast in the park, with students pushing themselves to try local favourites like chicharrón (fried pork skin) and mussels. By this time they were so comfortable in the city that we let them loose for the afternoon with the freedom to go wherever they liked (which, in practice either meant the Camp Nou or H&M). We met up again for the evening and a dazzling flamenco show, which turned out to be a surprise highlight for several of the boys. Then to top off another great day, Dhruv Gajjar orchestrated a late night cricket game in the middle of the Placa Catalunya with some local children before we all got to bed at about 1am.
The Journey back
On Tuesday 17th the students had just a few more hours to explore the cultural district near Plaça d'Espanya before we set off for the airport. Thankfully, the journey home was a lot smoother than the journey out and we all arrived back in Wembley for 7pm with smiles on our faces.
This was arguably the most ambitious trip that Ark Academy has run and we planned it with some trepidation, however in practice we needn’t have worried; all our objectives were achieved (and more), and the students responded with resilience and good humour whenever we encountered a set-back or a slightly ‘exotic’ local.
Despite the inevitable jibes questioning the mathematical legitimacy of the adventure, stepping inside La Sagrada Familia it provided a big ‘wow moment’ for the students and, hopefully, one that they will remember for a long time. For us maths teachers it was so rewarding to see students connecting their abstract studies with something so concrete and magnificent.
However, it was probably our other objective – to give the students new experiences and the confidence to push themselves further – that provided the most fulfilment for us. Prior to the trip one of the students had never been on a plane before and the vast majority had never swam in the sea. None had eaten Spanish food, and very few had ever been abroad without their parents. Only a couple had ever set foot in a cathedral and nobody had explored an art gallery at midnight.
The fifteen students on the trip came from eleven different cultural backgrounds and they all brought their own perspectives to the visit. Yet it will remain with them for a long time as a powerful shared experience and – surely – one of their most treasured memories from Ark Academy. As you can see from their feedback below, their only ‘EBIs’ were that we did more of the same.
This means that our overwhelming reflection has two-parts: firstly, we definitely want to make the trip an annual tradition and the high-point for our most dedicated mathematicians; secondly, we would urge anyone, no matter what department, to consider such outlandish ideas in the future, particularly for sixth-form. Based on our experience you certainly won’t regret it.