News & Views item - December 2008



Update on Math Matters. (December 2, 2008)

For this month's opinion piece TFW has reprinted a contribution by Peter Hall that's over 4½ years old (April 12, 2004) -- Math Matters, and we asked: "Has there been much change for the better?" Professor Hall, the current president of the Australian Mathematical Society, has provided TFW with the following update.

That revolution in education can come none to soon.


The attached charts show trends in numbers of mathematics majors in Australian universities over the period 2001 to 2007, and in Year 12 enrollments in different levels of mathematics in Australian schools over the period 1995 to 2007. The graph of numbers of mathematics majors shows a clear downwards trend. (The hiccup in 2003 is possibly the result of a major university not reporting accurately.)


Number of Mathematics Major Student Enrolments 2001-2007


Reflecting this trend -- because it reveals the decreasing numbers of students who have the preparation at school that they need to study mathematics at university -- the graph of participation in Year 12 shows a sustained drift from Advanced to Intermediate, and from Intermediate to Elementary, mathematics.




Update on Year 12 Mathematics Student Numbers*



Although the chart showing problems in high schools is perhaps the most worrying for science as a whole, the trends in the two charts are closely linked, as I'll explain in a moment.  As the number of students taking anything other than the most basic maths course in schools declines, the capacity of Australian students to study much science in university also decreases. Now, the problems in our schools are caused by the lack of trained maths teachers, and trained maths teachers should have majored in maths at university -- for example, this is mandatory in NSW. So you can see that as the number of maths majors in university goes down, so too does the number of trained maths teachers, and hence also the number of people taking anything more than elementary maths at school, which in turn leads to a reduction in the number of people capable of majoring in mathematics in our universities, and thus leads to a decline in the number of maths teachers… Thus, the spiral continues ever downwards. This problem received significant publicity in 2006, at which time we had data only up to 2004. Now that we have data up to and including 2007, you can see that the trend is continuing quite happily on its merry way.


 *Chart for year 12 student numbers supplied by Frank Barrington, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, The University of Melbourne.