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29 November 2014

A Mathematics Problem

Tag(s): Education
“Do not worry about your difficulties in Mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater.” Albert Einstein

I went back to school this week. At the St Albans School for Girls where I have been a Governor for 12 years they held a Governors’ Day. This was led off with a breakfast organised with the Hertfordshire Chamber of Commerce to demonstrate the attractiveness of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) careers for girls. The Hertfordshire Chamber of Commerce acknowledges the importance of raising and broadening girls’ career aspirations and the importance of encouraging more young women towards a career in a STEM area. As such the Herts Chamber has been working with schools on a pilot programme to link schools and STEM businesses together. Six young ladies each gave a short talk on their own STEM career and were all accomplished, confident and inspiring.

Kate Bellingham is an engineer and television presenter most widely known for her role presenting the popular BBC science show Tomorrow’s World from 1990-94. Sophia Mountford is an asset engineer at Affinity Water, she has attained a Master’s in Civil and Architectural Engineering and went on to complete a graduate scheme at Affinity Water. She specialises in water and sewage systems. Denise Austin is the Director of Pearldrop Video Production. Her role includes meeting with clients, organising shoots and spreading the word about what a video can do for your organisation. She read Maths at University and says she uses it every day. Roisin Speight is an engineer at Airbus Defence and Space. As a young girl she dreamt of going into space. Now she is helping to design rockets and satellites that do go into space. Danielle Calvert is a third year engineering apprentice at MBDA Missile Systems. She works in the manufacturing department and very soon will be going on to the live build centre. Only 19 she has won the Best Apprentice in the East of England Award. Cally Gentle is a higher mechanical engineering apprentice also at MBDA Missile Systems. She is working towards her second year of the Mechanical Higher National Certificate.

This was an excellent session and the school is setting the pace locally in encouraging girls to take STEM subjects and seek STEM careers. But we also need to encourage more boys to take STEM subjects and seek STEM careers. This is not just a gender issue, which has always been there; it is a national crisis, particularly in our shortage of qualified engineers. I was struck by this recent letter to a national newspaper:

“The reason for the shortage of engineers and scientists in Britain is that applied maths was replaced by pure maths at secondary level in the 1970s.
Applied maths uses maths to solve problems. It is essential to teaching and learning engineering and the sciences. Pure maths is the study of mathematical conundrums, with no practical application.
This short-sighted policy destroyed Britain’s engineering and scientific expertise, and has produced two generations of mathematically illiterate adults. The skill shortages have had to be made up by migrant workers.
Applied maths should be reintroduced at secondary level and pure maths offered only at A-level and above.
from Peter Wedderburn-Ogilvy, Froxfield, Hampshire[i]

I decided to look into this. First let’s look at the difference between applied and pure mathematics. One way to look at it is that pure maths is maths done for its own sake, while applied maths is maths with a practical use. But it’s not quite that simple, because even the most abstract maths can have unexpected applications. For example, the branch of mathematics known as ‘number theory’ was once considered one of the most useless, but now plays a vital part in computer encryption systems. If you’ve ever bought something online, you can thank number theorists for letting you do it safely.

Another way is to think how maths relates to other subjects. Applied maths seeks to model, predict and explain things in the real world: for example, one area of applied mathematics is fluid mechanics, which analyses how fluids are affected by forces. Other examples of applied maths might be statistics or probability theory. Pure maths, by contrast, is separate from the physical world. It solves problems, finds facts and answers questions that don’t depend on the world around us, but on the rules of mathematics itself. Unfortunately, there is no perfect way to decide what pure maths is and what applied maths is. Even mathematicians can’t agree on it.[ii]

Back at the school I asked the Head Teacher if what was said in the letter was correct. She could not confirm the dates but said it had been largely the case since she started teaching in the 1980s. I later had a meeting with the Head of Mathematics on another subject and then picked his brain on this issue. He confirmed it and blamed the National Curriculum. He went further and said there was not time to take students through an explanation of mathematical principles so that they could apply them in different situations. I asked him if there was any chance of Ed Miliband achieving his promise of training an extra 400,000 engineers by 2020. None whatsoever he said, while the national curriculum is as it is. In any case engineering graduates in the year 2020 are already in Key Stages 3 and 4 where there is very little applied maths prescribed in the syllabus.

Of course, some schools go outside the national curriculum and make sure their students can compete for those universities where to take mathematics, physics and other subjects like economics a high standard of both pure and applied mathematics is required. But the majority do not cover this to a sufficient standard as far as I can see and so the nation will continue to be short of the skills it needs to compete in a global market.

Still in education I also attended a meeting of the University of Bedfordshire Court where I am a member. Our new Chancellor John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, gave a polished performance in his first Court meeting as did Bill Gammell, former Minister of Higher Education, who has been Vice Chancellor for two years. Local MP Kelvin Hopkins, by complete coincidence, asked a question about mathematics. It’s not a subject the University teaches but his point was that the University does train teachers and there is a national shortage of maths teachers. Our standards of mathematics and numeracy now rank below the international average. The question stimulated a lively debate in which I joined given the above. Engineers in the room confirmed the problem and one local businessman said in 25 years he had been unable to recruit one British engineering graduate. A quarter of his workforce was Polish, all graduates but all willing to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. Others present thought it was a cultural problem as modern parents all wanted their sons and daughters to become doctors and lawyers rather than engineers who they see as messing about with hammers and spanners.

John Bercow said as Speaker he could decide on Adjournment debates and he hoped an MP might bring this subject forward as one for the House of Commons to debate. If that happens it was, as Bill Gammell told me afterwards, “a good morning’s work.”

[i] Letter to the Daily Telegraph 18th November, 2014

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