Engineers trapped on wrong side of the door

1st January 1999 at 00:00
Is mathematics too important to be left to mathematicians? For many people, it is a subject you take to pass an exam at school. but maths is also a fundamental tool for engineers and scientists, the people who shape,the quality of life we enjoy today and hope for in the future.

Last year, the fortnightly magazine of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers published several letters about the relevance of the mathematics taught to mechanical engineering undergraduates in leading universities.

"Would the challenging and complex (mathematical) material included in courses ever be needed and used in a future professional life in an era of computing and software solutions?" prospective chartered engineers asked.

A similar debate, in response to a shortage of students taking physics degrees, had taken place some years before. Today, the maths content of most UK chemistry degrees goes no deeper than A-level, with many entrants holding no more than a GCSE A-C, plus a limited appreciation of differential calculus. An irony indeed in a year when the Nobel prize for chemistry went to a mathematician.

In a recent issue of the Mathematical Gazette, Tony Gardiner, reader in mathematics at Birmingham University, wrote, controversially: "In place of real mathematics - an unavoidably black-and-white subject with right and wrong answers determined by (manipulating) symbols and (calculating) according to certain precise rules - English school mathematics now provides students with endless shades of grey.

"This is particularly true in the area of problem-solving and investigations, where problems are explored and reported on, but rarely solved! Indeed most school investigations seem to be deliberately chosen so that students have no prospect of ever giving a complete solution."

The impact of this trend can already be seen. A recent seminar on maths for science held by the Salters' Company expressed disbelief at the required mathematical content of chemical engineering degrees. "Well it's no good steering Johnnie or Joanne into engineering if this is needed," was the comment of one teacher. "I always thought engineering was the practical applied end of science, but the mathematics needed goes way beyond what we are told is needed for science degrees."

This illustrates a fundamental lack of appreciation about the real tasks science and engineering graduates should be doing.

And yet this discussion, in essence about how little maths one can get away with on science and engineering courses, is primarily a UK problem. Science and engineering undergraduates in continental Europe simply accept that competence, facility and understanding of maths is the very foundation of their advanced studies. Indeed the subject is extended and reinforced throughout the longer (four-year plus) degree programmes taught by our European partners in their prestigious science and engineering schools.

There can be no room for sentiment in employment in today's global market.If Cambridge, England, does not pass muster, then the multinational will employ others from Cambridge, Massachusetts, Delft, Aachen, the Grandes Ecoles of France, Sydney or Singapore.

The issue of mathematical competence must be addressed in schools. Those entering science and engineering degrees must be fascinated by maths, understanding that it is the very door to their own professional discipline rather than a subject to be suffered and in which to scrape a bare pass.

Dr Trevor Evans is chief executive of the Institution of Chemical Engineers

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