It's all in the analytical mind

21st March 1997 at 00:00
Too many pupils think non-applied maths degrees are a disadvantage when it comes to choosing a career. Tariq Tahir finds out how teachers can counter the arguments

Maths has an image problem. Many young people enjoy taking the subject at school, but feel it is only the applied mathematical disciplines, such as engineering, that are offer pathways to a rewarding career.

But this perception may change. The Open University is making a video for the London Mathematical Society, which tracks maths graduates in a wide variety of careers. The idea is to show the video in schools and persuade sceptical pupils that a maths degree is not a one-way ticket to the dole queue.

The inspiration for the video is a project undertaken last year by the Scottish Mathematical Association and UBI Scotland, to raise awareness among maths teachers themselves, about the jobs open to maths graduates and the relevance of a maths degree in the world of work. Giving teachers these practical examples, it was thought, would enable them more credibly to persuade talented pupils to stick with the subject if they enjoy it.

The society's project was started by Tommy Doherty, who was then the National Development Officer for the Scottish Open Learning Consortium, following concern voiced by universities about a drop in the number of pupils choosing to take maths degrees. He says: "The universities thought it was because there were no careers open to people with maths degrees. But I knew that this wasn't the case and set out to prove it."

Perhaps the most unusual shadow was undertaken by Alastair Stankey, principal teacher of maths at Tarbert Academy, Argyll and Bute, who spent his day with Dr Mike Burrows at the Dunstaffnage Marine Laboratory in Oban. Dr Burrows carries out research to predict the movement of marine life, which involves constructing statistical models to estimate the probability of fish and other creatures being in particular locations.

"It was really interesting. Here was all this maths going on and all of this work could be done by a mathematician but the kids at school never get to hear about it," says Alastair Stankey. "The most impressive thing that he was doing was a spreadsheet to deal with the statistics, which was much more to do with maths than biology."

He says the visit emphasised the importance of statistics in scientific research and highlighted its paucity in the curriculum - and as a result he has revived the statistics option in sixth year studies maths at his school.

All the teachers who participated in the project came out with a positive message. For Linda McIntosh, of Laurel Park School in Glasgow, the point that emerged from the exercise was that the people with maths degrees are highly trained to solve the problems that are a daily part of working life. Her day with systems analysts at the British AerospaceSEMA shipyard, convinced her that studying maths provides an ideal grounding for a career in industry.

"They said they used some of the algorithms that they learned at university, but it was having a mathematical mind that was the most useful. They have many differing problems to solve, so they need exactly the sort of training that maths provides to help them proceed in the right direction."

Back in the classroom she has tried to incorporate elements of problem solving into her teaching. "It wasn't direct problem solving that I brought back but the way that I structure lessons. Rather than lead them to a solution, I get them to try various ones to arrive at the right answer. But it's difficult with the time that's available and often it falls by the wayside."

Her views are echoed by Elaine Paul who teaches at Govan High School in Glasgow. She spent her day with Lindsey Chalmers and her team at the Royal Bank of Scotland's headquarters in Edinburgh. Their job consists of setting up and improving credit scoring systems, for which a mind honed by a maths degree is a valuable commodity.

"What I found out was that they need a basic level of numeracy but more importantly they have to have problem-solving and analytical skills. When Lindsey started out in her job, a lot of what she was doing was new to her. But being trained in maths meant that she had the ability to learn to tackle new problems systematically, even if they had nothing directly to do with maths. "

For Elaine Paul, developing these skills is more important than the rote learning of maths. "I know a lot of people who have computing degrees, but who wish that they had done more maths to give them the ability to tackle problems at work," she says. She argues that the difference between a pure and an applied maths degree does not matter. It is having such a degree that is important, and pupils should take maths if they enjoy it. "It shows that you are not afraid to learn," she says.

Linda McIntosh agrees and maintains that as people are expected to change jobs more often in the modern world, an all-round degree like maths develops skills that can be used in a wide variety of jobs. Tommy Doherty, who now works for the North Lanarkshire education authority, is keen to debunk the stereotypes that are associated with maths degrees. "When young people are making their choices they tend to think that the only option open to them if they have a maths degree is to go into research in some ivory tower. But I think what this conclusively showed was that a maths degree can be put to good use."

* Information about similar placements can be obtained from Clare Marsh at the UBI Scotland, tel: 0141 880 8571 Details about the video from Tony Gardiner at the London Mathematical Society, tel: 0121 414 3344

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