Mission Possible – reviving the ‘M’ in STEM

Farheena Ahmad describes her experience going ‘back to school’ as part of CSIRO STEM’s Professionals in School Program and discusses the need to revive positive attitudes and enthusiasm towards mathematics in the classrooms of the future.

For me, graduating from high school was an experience of absolute relief and jubilation and I recall telling myself, “I am never going to step in to another school again!” As I stood in front of a class of about 30 sixth graders I couldn’t help but chuckle at myself. Life was teaching me the lesson of ‘never say never!’

In the interim, life has thrown a lot at me. I went from being a working professional to a wife and a mother of almost half a dozen children! I continued to assist my husband with the financial accounts of his ophthalmic practice and now, here I was, with my two-year-old in tow, volunteering for CSIRO STEM Professionals in School Program. This program is a partnership between schools, teachers, students and STEM professionals which allows professionals to share their skills, experience and knowledge with students to help inspire them to take up careers in a STEM related field.

With all the enthusiasm I could muster I introduced myself to the class of bright-eyed bushy-tailed sixth graders:

“I am an actuary”. They stared back bewildered. Uh-oh! ‘Houston, we have a problem!’

Taking a deep breath, I proceeded to write, ‘Analyses Future Financial Risk’ on the whiteboard. We proceeded to dissect the words individually and list some things they could associate with each word. As we progressed they were listing up to 12 or more! We had cracked the code, and I was in my element.

I started off with a simple exercise on the type of work actuaries do, for example car insurance and extrapolated with some typical risk based questions an actuary might consider:

  • ‘Should male and female drivers be charged the same premiums?’
  • ‘Should where you live and what you do for a living or the make, year or model of your car matter?’
  • ‘Should your driving history and ability to drive play a role in the premiums you pay?’ And so on.

The questions made them think about achievable solutions. Finally, ‘we have lift off!’  I was engaging them with critical thinking skills relevant beyond the classroom. The exposure to real world problems (beyond what might be typically discussed in a school setting) seemed to pique their curiosity.

The Institute’s High School Program aims to raise awareness of the profession and encourage students with a passion for maths to become an Actuary. Request a visit for your high school by contacting us. Actuaries interested volunteering to visit schools can find out more here and get in touch too.


The Status Quo

I can’t speak on behalf of all actuaries, but whenever mathematics is mentioned in the news, my ears prick up.  Late in 2016, Acer (Australian Council for Educational Research) published “PISA 2015: A First look at Australia’s Results”, a study in which 72 countries and 540,000 15-year old students participated in. Around 14,500 Australian students took part in the test.

Following is a summary of the report as it relates to Mathematical Literacy. 

In the Pisa context, Mathematical literacy is an individual’s capacity to formulate, employ and interpret mathematics in a variety of contexts. It includes reasoning mathematically and using mathematical concepts, procedures, facts and tools to describe, explain and predict phenomena. It assists individuals to recognise the role that mathematics plays in the world and to make the well-founded judgments and decisions needed by constructive, engaged and reflective citizens.

The report was based on high participation rates and revealed some significant findings:

  • Out of the three subjects tested (Science, English & Maths) Australia’s performance in mathematical literacy was significantly below 19 other OECD countries.
  • Australia was one of 10 countries whose performance declined significantly between 2012 and 2015. The decline in Australia’s performance was 10 points. 
  • Between 2003 and 2015, mathematical literacy performance declined by 30 points to an average score of 494 points in 2015.

Let’s look at the following questions to examine these results further:

  • Why has Australia’s ranking declined in comparison to other countries?
  • Why has this trend been consistent and more pronounced in the last two PISA results?

There would be many reasons that factor into this trend.

The removal of calculus based  mathematics (and instead opting for an “assumed knowledge of mathematics”) as a prerequisite to tertiary courses like engineering, science and commerce has contributed to declining uptake of mathematics subjects in later high school years. See these articles for more on this:

This lack of uptake has a flow on effect to university success. According to former University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Tyrone Carlin “there is a very measurable difference in academic success between students who have two-unit Mathematics (in Year 12) and those who don’t”.

According to research led by the Australian Mathematical and Science Institute, the lack of prerequisite knowledge of higher order maths among university students of STEM related degrees has led to an increase in their dropout rates.

This appears to be a self-perpetuating cycle. There must be more we can do to attract students to maths or science related degrees, and also prepare them adequately for the courses.

As Robert Bolton writes in the AFR:

Nearly 40 per cent of Australia’s maths teachers do not have a mathematics-related degree. The minimum requirement is a quarter of their first-year and a quarter of their second-year tertiary study be maths related. That and a teaching diploma is enough to put someone in charge of a maths classroom at a secondary school.

Dr Sue Thomson, Deputy CEO (Research) and Head of Educational Monitoring and Research at the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) has stated that a shortage of STEM-qualified teachers in high schools is a contributing factor to Australia’s declining mathematical literacy performance.

But the problem may start much earlier than secondary school.

The anxiety among some primary school teachers associated with teaching mathematics and science is also contributing, according to Dr Thomson. 

I believe that herein lies the problem. For the 15-year-olds sitting the PISA test, it may be too late for them to develop a strong interest and/or aptitude for math if they did not gain an appetite or aptitude for learning mathematics in primary school.

There is a very small window of opportunity to teach a young child before their attention wavers. I believe that to give primary students a strong foundation in mathematics, they need to be taught about the broad application and relevance of the subject to their lives outside the classroom. How can this be achieved if teachers are not able to relate to the fundamental concepts of maths themselves?

I argue many primary schools are busy investing time in the ’buzzword’ of STEM, and introducing other science and technology subjects into a school day.  This takes away from an in-depth focus on mathematics.

What education institutions need to understand is that mathematics is the foundation of STEM.  Maths is the language of science, technology and engineering.   The sub-specialties of this acronym will naturally follow once a child has mastered mathematics in their early years of schooling.  In fact, we should change the acronym to steM.

So What Next?

Our Minister for Education and Training Simon Birmingham suggested that we import qualified teachers from overseas as a solution. I think we should first look at the many qualified mathematics professionals in the Australian workforce, like us actuaries. We are immersed in the subject in our daily lives and have the practical experience of applying mathematics to real world problems.

How could we provide ongoing teaching support to mathematics learning in primary and secondary schools?

CSIRO has the right idea with its Professionals in Schools Program which uses various professionals committing their time voluntarily outside work hours, or through retired engineers and lecturers dedicating their spare time. However, this is not enough to drastically uplift mathematical literacy.

A short-term solution in my opinion is for there to be incentives for professionals in the field to provide workshops or a few hours per week of their time giving back to the community and helping raise the bar on mathematics proficiency in schools.

Of course, being in a maths related profession, doesn’t mean you would be adept at teaching it. The gaps in teaching methodology knowledge and understanding of behavioral dynamics in the classroom would need addressing.

Who knows, the experience for some maths professionals might even be enough to inspire them into a career-change into teaching!

Inspiring future leaders

Growing up in the 80’s back in Darwin I still remember my father’s (who was an engineer) passion for mathematics and to helping us solve mathematical homework problems. His excitement was contagious and I recall vividly a photo of me grinning ear to ear in a T-shirt he fondly gifted me which said “Maths Star!”

We have the power to become a huge contributing factor in making a lasting impact on the next generation of inventors, who are merely waiting to be discovered!

Not only will they be game changers in the field of mathematics, but they will be valuable contributors across the complete acronym, STEM.

Related reading:

Listen to our latest CareerView podcast on Diversity & Inclusion which talks about participation rates in STEM subjects.

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