As a contribution to the discussion about mathematics in schools, here is a contribution from guest author Lauren Bailey.

According to Accenture, two thirds of all IT, science, and general technology companies in the UK are actively searching for new STEM talent. Unfortunately, only about 22% of all university students in the UK receive their degrees in science, computer science, engineering, or math. So, the problem is that there’s an obvious shortage of qualified graduates in the country to fill positions. If the UK wants to remain a global leader, cultivating more STEM talent is essential, especially because over 40% of higher education graduates in China and almost 30% of graduates in India get their degrees in one of the STEM subjects.

The tremendous growth of STEM talent in China and India in recent years is definitely a good thing for the global economy, but it’s also an unfortunate indication that the UK is falling behind. Recent reports of teenagers in the UK not grasping essential math concepts don’t bode well for the UK’s global competitiveness in the STEM fields either. Although there are a handful of government programs that try to encourage kids to take an interest in math, science, and technology, it seems as though these programs are falling short.

So, what can we do, as regular people, to cultivate talent in math, science, technology, and engineering and cultivate that talent in young learners? For starters, we should probably let kids know that they don’t need to learn math and science just to pass a test. They need to learn math and science because doing so will benefit them. Understanding math and science helps kids understand more about how this chaotic world works.

Parents, teachers, and community members need to make math, science, and technology fun, interesting, and worthwhile for kids. We need to make the STEM subjects come alive and seem as robust and magical as they truly are. This means that there should be more trips to nature preserves. More kids need to be able to tinker around with computers (especially affordable ones like the Raspberry Pi computer). Additionally, instead of watching television when they get home from school, our kids need to be learning how to play chess and solve math puzzles. In sum, kids need to spend less time sitting at their desks and extra time exploring the world around them.

The education of our kids matters. So, let’s not deprive them of the joy of becoming mathematicians, engineers, programmers, and doctors. Let’s do what we can now to change the current educational trends. If we all band together, everything we do will add up to create a much brighter future for today’s youth.

Lauren Bailey

Lauren Bailey is a freelance blogger who loves writing about education, new technology, lifestyle and health. As an education writer, she works to research and provide information for those ranking online colleges and welcomes comments and questions via email at

blauren99@gmail.com.

Thank you for posting this, it does raise some issues in my mind however.

[I will say in advance that I am a mathematics graduate and all the comments I make below are regarding mathematics alone]

“According to Accenture, two thirds of all IT, science, and general technology companies in the UK are actively searching for new STEM talent. Unfortunately, only about 22% of all university students in the UK receive their degrees in science, computer science, engineering, or math. So, the problem is that there’s an obvious shortage of qualified graduates in the country to fill positions.”

The problem is even worse than it sounds, I think. Unless a maths undergraduate focuses on statistics or finance it is unlikely that a BSc will give them much in the way of employment options.

In particular, if a student (intending to only go as far a a BSc) takes a mixture of pure and applied modules rather than focusing on just applied (and even then they should avoid physics related modules in favor of statistics and finance ones) then they are ultimately undermining their own employment prospects.

I would also add that those students seriously thinking about getting a job as a mathematician after a BSc should be looking to teach themselves things like C++. If you type in ‘Mathematician’ or ‘mathematics’ into a job search, then (once you filter out the teaching jobs) most of what remains requires you to be fluent in either C , C++ or C#. However the modules that an undergraduate sees during a degree in mathematics might not even mention these.

“The tremendous growth of STEM talent in China and India in recent years is definitely a good thing for the global economy, but it’s also an unfortunate indication that the UK is falling behind. Recent reports of teenagers in the UK not grasping essential math concepts don’t bode well for the UK’s global competitiveness in the STEM fields either. Although there are a handful of government programs that try to encourage kids to take an interest in math, science, and technology, it seems as though these programs are falling short. ”

China and Japan (I don’t know enough about India to comment), simply as a cultural norm, demand levels of discipline from their youngsters that would be considered superhuman to many British students. In addition showing respect to ones elders and to authority figures has far greater pride of place in the cultures of these two countries than it does in Britain.

Now since mathematics requires both discipline to study properly, as well as faith in one’s teachers that what is being studied is worth the effort (a state of affairs which assumes that the students are inclined to respect their teacher), it makes perfect sense that Britain will fall behind a country like China in this area.

“So, what can we do, as regular people, to cultivate talent in math, science, technology, and engineering and cultivate that talent in young learners? For starters, we should probably let kids know that they don’t need to learn math and science just to pass a test. They need to learn math and science because doing so will benefit them. Understanding math and science helps kids understand more about how this chaotic world works.”

Where science is concerned I feel compelled to ask In what way is this not already done? I really enjoyed science at school but I was in a minority for my class. The rest were being given the same presentation as me, but they simply didn’t care. The teachers were not to blame nor was the choice of topics in my opinion.

As I suggested above, a large part of the problem lies in that many British students are not particularly disciplined, nor is there a cultural expectation for them to be so.

Where mathematics is concerned I think it has to be admitted that many of the topics that many students need to learn, such as converting between fractions, decimals and percentages, learning multiplication tables and how to do long division (the bread and butter stuff), are dull. Not because mathematics itself is dull, it is in fact rather interesting (well, applied maths is anyway 🙂 ). But these things have to be learned. What topics should be sacrificed so that more entertaining stuff can be presented instead?

Kind Regards.

I don’t entirely agree with this. If I did think that only strictly vocational material should be included in a maths degree, I would not have spent my career as a university teacher. I have always thought that part of a teacher’s job is to raise the students’ expectations: they can tackle hard problems. This confidence is worth far more in looking for a job than any course on fluid dynamics or statistics, and can be gained as well (maybe better, but that is a matter of opinion) in a pure maths course.

As to the content of school mathematics, have a look at Günter Ziegler’s analysis referred to in my earlier post. Students need to be able to do arithmetic without too much pain, but they also need an appreciation of what mathematics is and what it does for our way of life, and if they want a career in a numerate subject such as engineering then they need more. These are three quite different targets!

Thank you for your response sir.

I wasn’t trying to suggest that only applied maths courses should be presented at undergraduate level, I was merely trying to say that students intending to look for mathematics jobs after a BSc should concentrate on applied modules (as well as teaching themselves some extra stuff). If students intend to stay on for an MSc or PhD then that is a very different matter. It is also a rather different matter if they want to be, say secondary school mathematics teachers for example.

I have read Günter M. Ziegler’s essay a few times and I am very skeptical that what he has said is of much relevance to the British secondary school system.

I had a go at writing up a detailed analysis, but it was getting very long very quickly, so I will just summarize my thoughts here:

1) I didn’t notice any discussion of ‘behavior management’ in the essay, which is a rather serious omission when considering what could be done to improve the learning of mathematics in many British schools. [For those who haven’t read the essay I should point out that Dr.Ziegler is concerned with the secondary education system in Germany].

I don’t know enough about German schools to make a comment, but enforcing a consistently good standard of behavior is a serious difficulty in many British schools and until that problem is solved to a sufficient degree, any other improvements really amount to using a finger plaster to treat a gunshot wound [tragic but true].

If Britain was to completely change its secondary education system so that the academically inclined and hard working were separated from those that weren’t, then yes those two groups of superior students would probably thrive in a learning environment that worked in accordance with Dr.Ziegler’s ideas. But if you tried to do some of this stuff in a rough comprehensive school it would be a complete disaster. Granted it already is in some places, but things can always get worse.

2) Even if behavior management were not as serious a problem as it is in Britain, many of Dr. Ziegler’s observations aren’t really problems which I would say it is the responsibility of a secondary school to solve. I would say it was the responsibility of the A-Level system, that is to say sixth form colleges, to prepare individuals for university.

Indeed if university lecturers in Britain are really concerned about the quality of candidates they are getting (and I agree they have every right to expect better), and if they wish to seriously consider offering suggestions about how to make things better I would advise them to concentrate entirely on the A-Level system, get any ideas about serious or worthwhile wide spread secondary school reform out of your minds. It is not going to happen in the foreseeable future.

I have several reasons for saying this, but I will quickly give just one here; GCSE students are studying a large number of rather different subjects simultaneously, whereas A-level students ,ideally are not. So it is far more likely that they will absorb all this extra information at A-level than before.

3) I didn’t notice any mention of the following fact about the aspirations of many teenagers (especially male); they want to earn lots of money and they want to put in as little effort as possible in order to get it. Obviously not everyone is like that, but many are. Given that mathematics is difficult and isn’t guaranteed to make you well off financially (contrary to how it was advertised to me by sixth form career advisers), it is always going to be a hard sell, no matter how may history lessons about the great mathematicians one gives (actually come to think of it, best not to talk about De Moivre or Abel…).

So in conclusion, I wish it would work at secondary school level generally, I truly do, but it won’t, not as things stand in Britain. Maybe in some of the better schools it would, but not generally. On the other hand alterations to the A-Level system might be feasible.

(phew)

kind regards

Next year, Bluff City Elementary will have a dedicated STEM teacher. She will function much like an art or music teacher and will float between all of the classes. In addition, the school system has started a STEM academy, which is a partnership with Kingsport City Schools. The school will have 160 students whose education will focus almost exclusively on science, math and technology.