Let’s put the M back into STEM

This is a series of occasional blogs by BESA members and is part of their paid membership service. These views are not necessarily those of BESA and a published blog does not constitute an endorsement.

In this blog, Andrew Blackie – Head of Partnerships at Sparx – talks about the increasing need to raise the profile of mathematics in relation to STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths).

Mathematicians are like Frenchmen: whatever you say to them, they translate it into their own language, and forthwith it means something entirely different” — Goethe.

Goethe was mocking mathematicians and mathematics over 200 years ago. I am sure there is some ancient Egyptian tomb art poking fun at the expense of a well-meaning 12th dynasty mathematician.

This attitude manifests today in a number of key and worrying areas.

  • The badge of honour seemingly afforded those who managed to get through school without ever being able to do maths. Nobody says that about reading and writing. KPMG National Numeracy research estimates that poor numeracy has a financial impact not only on the individual but a £20 billion a year cost to the economy, with as many as 17 million adults with poor numeracy.
  • Recognition of maths anxiety has grown over the last decade. You can buy non-ironic t-shirts with the legend “How To Do Math: (1) Write Down The Problem (2) Cry”. Nobody should be abandoned by the education system to the point that such a level of stress becomes inherent in any practical application of mathematics.
  • There is an association of the words “geek” and “anorak” for anybody even remotely good or interested in maths. The uncool aspect of mathematics cannot be understated. The perception of maths as something for the boffins keeps it off the agenda for many secondary school pupils from years 7-11.
  • Despite being shunned by a huge percentage of the population, research from the European Educational Research Association has shown the importance of mathematics in society; the relevance of mathematics to other subjects; and inclusion and exclusion in terms of gender, race and social class.
  • Most worryingly for the passionate mathematicians, is it lazy acronym writing or a deliberate slight that even the focus on STEM has M at the end – always described as “and mathematics”?

There appears to be a very small, lowercase m in STEm and what there is, is used to support science or computer science. Is this the apologetic, introvert mathematicians not wanting to either be in a club where they are not welcome, or overstay their welcome at the STEm party? How has this happened, and more importantly, how can it be changed?

Mathematics is important in virtually every aspect of life: from digital music to public transport and from structural engineering to supermarket deliveries. Many of the most impactful jobs in the world today require significant levels of mathematics, not only to support societal growth but also economic development.

Equally, mathematics is not just for work, it is hugely useful in everyday life.

Mathematics teaches us different skills: logical reasoning, pattern finding, abstracting data, and structured thinking. These skills are useful in many parts of life which are not directly related to mathematics – everything from comparing sale prices to journey planning.

As mathematics educators, it is obviously beholden on us to be supporters of STEM because any support and advocacy of STEM education has an associated support for mathematics education. However, to support the drive for STEM, we need to ensure that every student develops a positive view on mathematics – a deep understanding and assured confidence with maths, and a comfortable demeanour when doing maths. Without this, we will have failed our students and denied them wonderful and varied future opportunities and failed the government drive for STEM.

The solution has to come from the application of maths, the engagement with maths, and the association and relevancy of maths. Nobody teaches music by writing notes on a scale in isolation. The notes are just part of the ‘how’ of music; the ‘what’ and ‘why’ is the sound created – the output, the tune and the symphony.

Most of us are taught how to calculate, not why the calculations are done. Words that instil fear and panic in students of any age – algebra, calculus, and geometry – are just tools. They are not maths. Most of us have been taught facts, not skills and interesting application. We are taught knowledge, not mathematical thinking or respect of the subject.

It is the responsibility of educators, parents, peers, business, government and society to popularise mathematics by showing how exciting, applicable and fantastic it can be.

In 2018, the National Audit Office predicated that 700,000 additional STEM jobs will be needed to meet employer demand in the decade to 2024. STEM is vital to the economy, but let’s put maths where it belongs.

Anybody for MEST?