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Solving the national mathematics problem

Published: 
Monday, February 2, 2015
Science and Society

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education is being emphasized as it provides the basis for science-based innovation. Mathematics, the last item in the acronym, is actually first in importance. Its teaching from the earliest levels must be stressed. This would allow for a good grasp of the principles of mathematics and their applications in science and technology.

The performance of engineering students in engineering programmes, locally, was always a cause for some concern. It has now become a cause for great concern. Large numbers of students are unable to recall much less apply the various mathematical principles required to solve problems. This, of course, impacts negatively on the production of future researchers.

A thorough grounding in secondary school mathematics is an absolute prerequisite for engineering mathematics. Such a grounding is generally not the case and thus remedial mathematics becomes necessary if students are to grasp the subject matter. It goes without saying that, without an understanding of the engineering principles and methodology, innovation and innovation-based entrepreneurship will ring hollow.

There are several factors that contribute to this long standing and worsening problem. A major one is the doing away of the thorough grounding given to students in the past, at the secondary level, in the various elements of mathematics. These included arithmetic, algebra and geometry. These three subjects were followed up with calculus, trigonometry and additional mathematical topics.

This was a logical approach. Mastery of the basic mathematical operations and values of numbers (arithmetic) is needed before the more abstract and generalised principles of algebra can be grasped. The linkage between numbers and shapes was introduced through geometry, which also provided the methodology for logically analysing and solving problems.

Additional mathematics, which includes calculus, trigonometry, coordinate geometry etc, provided the basis for analysing and solving problems in engineering and the sciences. This approach allowed for students to be in a position to tackle engineering mathematics in a reasonable fashion. The doing away of the proper grounding that arithmetic, algebra and geometry provided and replacing it with a hodge- podge of all three lumped into one course needs to be revisited.

This dilution may have arisen from the need to cope with the wider ability range and greater number of students entering the education system stream. One acknowledges the absolute necessity to make education, at both the primary and secondary level, universal, but at the same time cognisance of the aptitude and abilities of the students must be taken into account.

The mathematical hodge-podge introduces at an early age concepts that are quite complex and abstract. These include the set theory and other topics that would be better understood if students had a good grasp of the basics. This situation is made worse by the many teachers who do not have a good grasp of the concepts themselves. The result is a vicious downward spiral as superficial, exam-based Mathematics teaching is the order of the day.

This initial weakness is carried right up to the diploma and university levels where the failure rate is unacceptably high and the level of design and research is subsequently compromised. Analytic work is shunned in favour of experimental and or “guesstimental” approaches. The former is acceptable for some types of research, the latter for none.

This argument may be viewed as abstract by some. It is certainly not. It impacts enormously on the development of the country. How? Because the ability to conduct meaningful research is negatively impacted. Both the quantity and quality of the country’s research output impact on its ability to analyse, solve and innovate; upon which its future depends.

A critical review of mathematics, both the syllabi and teaching pedagogy, from the primary to the tertiary level needs to be undertaken. Proper articulation and career guidance must be part of the process. Significant savings will accrue through better performance and the reduced cost of remedial education.

The mathematical hodge-podge introduces at an early age concepts that are quite complex and abstract. These include the set theory and other topics that would be better understood if students had a good grasp of the basics. This situation is made worse by the many teachers who do not have a good grasp of the concepts themselves. The result is a vicious downward spiral as superficial, exam-based Mathematics teaching is the order of the day.

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