Q+A: Top maths adviser sounds alarm on mathematician shortage

Mathematics enrolments are falling but demand for trained mathematicians is on the rise. http://www.flickr.com/photos/edbrambley

Demand for trained mathematicians is growing but enrolment is maths courses is in steep decline.

Failing to tackle the problem puts the country at risk of producing the scientists and engineers needed to tackle the great problems of our age, like climate change and technological innovation, said Australia’s National Science and Mathematics Education and Industry Adviser, Dr Roslyn Prinsley.

In this Q+A, Dr Prinsley, who began in her role last week, outlines her vision.

The number of people studying maths and science is dropping and one recent study showed the number of female students studying no maths for their HSC more than doubling in ten years. What do you think of that?

The fact that the demand in Australia for maths graduates, at the minute, is outstripping supply is a major issue for this country.

From 1998 to 2005, the demand for mathematicians increased by 52%. From 2001 to 2007, the number of enrolments in a mathematics major in Australian universities declined by 15%.

On the global scale we are falling behind too. In 2003 the percentage of students graduating with a major in mathematics or statistics in Australia was 0.4%. The OECD average was 1%.

So there’s a major mismatch going on and that should be clear to anybody.

Obviously, if we want to increase the number of maths graduates to meet that demand we have to increase numbers of both boys and girls because we want our best boy and best girl mathematicians to meet that challenge.

I do understand there are a whole range of reasons why girls are dropping out and boys aren’t doing maths either. There are issues, for instance, such as advanced maths no longer being a prerequisite for various university courses.

So if girls (and boys) don’t see a requirement to do maths, or the value in maths and they don’t think they’re very good at maths they will probably take another option and do something they think they’re better at to get a higher ATAR mark. Maths is hard and there needs to be a reward at the other end.

Having said that, there is a reasonable amount of research that has been done on girls and maths which shows that, contrary to some people’s perceptions, there is no difference in the capability of girls and boys to do maths.

However, there is a difference in their self-perception of their capability and their interest in maths.

So boys, even though they may have the same capability as girls, tend to think they have a greater capability.

Girls tend to think they have less capability than their actual capability. Something needs to be done about that.

If we could make maths more interesting for girls and increase their confidence at an early age, we could turn that around.

What are some of your goals and what do you hope to achieve in your role?

I think there is a poor understanding across a large sector of the Australian population about maths and science and how important they are for the future of Australian society and the world.

So part of my role and part of what I’m hoping to do is to create much greater awareness across the population as a whole and particularly within those students whom we need to impact.

Second of all, if we have fewer people doing maths and science, we have fewer maths and science teachers and that’s a vicious cycle. It has been shown again and again that an inspiring teacher is a key to increasing student interest in mathematics and science.

So I think there needs to be some particular work done getting many more of our best mathematicians and scientists to become teachers.

We won’t be able to sustain much needed innovation in this country if we don’t have enough good scientists or mathematicians.

Why do we need good mathematicians? What are some of these areas of innovation?

In every walk of life, we need people to do be able to do quantitative things, whether that be the person who works out the correct level of radiation to give a cancer patient or the person who works out how to make sure an aeroplane lands safely or a water engineer who is working in flood prevention or a meteorologist predicting the weather. Obviously there are also the financial and commercial sectors too, which require sophisticated mathematical analysis.

All of those require quantitative skills and we don’t have enough people who can do those things.

Virtually every sector needs people with quantitative skills who understand maths.

Your role covers not just maths, but maths and science more generally. Are we seeing the backward trends you identified in maths in those other areas too?

We are. We do know that between 1992 and 2009, the proportion of Year 12 students taking physics, chemistry and biology fell by 31%, 23% and 32% respectively.

In fact, we need more scientists, considering the sorts problems we are facing such as food security and climate change and the need for innovators to address those problems which require certain maths and science capabilities.

Engineers have a significant role, too, in powering economic growth and are in particularly short supply. We need to graduate 20,000 per year to meet national requirements but we are only graduating 9,000 per year.

One of your tasks is to create much greater awareness. How are you going to do that?

I am planning to talk to the employers from industry and other sectors to understand where the shortages are now and where they see that they will be in the future. I would like to see employers work with us to develop an awareness campaign involving the public, private and non profit sectors to increase participation, collaboration and achievement in maths, statistics, engineering and science.

Examples abound in other countries of such awareness campaigns, and Australia cannot afford to be left behind. For example, in the US, Connect a Million Minds is a five-year, $100 million philanthropic initiative to address America’s declining proficiency in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), because this puts the US at risk of not competing successfully in a global economy.

It is largely sponsored by Time Warner Cable to create awareness of the issue and to inspire students to develop the science and maths skills they need to become the problem solvers of tomorrow.

It also concerns me that the general population has such a poor understanding of science.

You only need to look at the way people think about medicine or climate change to realise that they’re putting their own uninformed opinions before informed scientific understanding about how things work. Examples are people who don’t believe in vaccinations or climate change deniers. These types of misconceptions endanger the wellbeing of the planet.

Better education in science and maths will result in better understanding of issues which are important to every Australian.