Engineering Educators Bicker Over Need for Mathematics 3

Monday, December 30th, 2013
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Leading educators in Australia have engaged in a public spat over whether or not higher levels of mathematics are necessary for budding engineers.

The spat began when Richard Buckland, a lecturer from the School of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of NSW, told Fairfax Media that a lack of mathematics training in senior high school was “not a problem” for entry-level engineering students as long as they possess sufficient aptitude for analytical reasoning.

In an opinion piece written for Fairfax, Buckland sought to encourage even those students who have not undertaken extensive study of mathematics at the high school level to persevere with their ambitions to become engineers.

Buckland warned against underestimating the the “potential of students just because they have not studied [mathematics] at the most advanced high school level.”

While acknowledging the core importance of mathematics to the engineering discipline, as well as the advantage that its study in high school will confer upon aspiring engineers, Buckland said the chief expectation of engineering graduates is the ability to innovate as well as provide solutions to problems affecting the real world.

Buckland’s remarks have provoked responses of strong disagreement amongst his colleagues at UNSW, some of whom consider his efforts to counter the perception that mathematical training is a necessity for engineers to be misguided.

Peter Brown, UNSW’s director of first year mathematics, said Buckland’s remarks have caused frustration amongst staff members, who feel that the comments have undermined the emphasis placed by the university on the pivotal importance of mathematics for the engineering discipline.

Brown believes that it is “absurd” for students to commence first-year mathematics courses at university without having previously studied the subject as part of their HSC, pointing to an extremely high failure rate for those who have attempted to do so in the past.

Professor Bruce Henry, head of the UNSW School of Mathematics and Statistics, said advanced courses in mathematics should be undertaken by aspiring engineers while in high school. Henry said any advice to students encouraging them to choose subjects based on maximization of their ATAR was “totally responsible” as well as “misleading.”

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  1. James Trevelyan

    Even a casual examination of curricula at a selection of engineering schools will show this story is a "beat up". Maths is considered essential for all engineering disciplines, but the level of study may vary for some. Maths is the language in which engineers discuss technical issues, and mathematical ideas are universally used by engineers, more so in a tacit sense than the direct application of mathematical techniques. See the recently published book "Engineering Practice in a Global Context", chapter by Eileen Goold. Any student entering a university engineering school without appropriate maths at high school (if accepted) would be required to complete equivalent preparatory study with bridging courses.

  2. Ben Holt

    Where the article tails off "…was “totally responsible” as well as “misleading.”", I'm thinking it should say 'irresponsible' if it is to make sense. Something can hardly be both totally responsible and misleading.

  3. Matt

    Frankly speaking most of the maths as well as many other subject studied in universities only used for doing test and they NEVER used in a day to day of an engineer works. Engineers do not need to reinvent the wheel. They just use it in new ways.