Hard numbers on maths education

Plus Marvellous Melbourne’s MOOC and Academy of Science signs on to STEM strategy

Total no recall

Kerrie Thomas and colleague at Cardiff University, writing in Nature Communications have identified a process the brain uses to rescue and delete memories. CMM suggests researching how quickly it kicks in when individuals are invited to give evidence to crime and misconduct commissions.


Cash for crucibles

The government’s strategy to sell its science plan is to get all the players in the policy tent, by holding more consultations than a parliamentary committee on the state of luxury hotels. Chief Scientist Ian Chub has made the case for research priority areas and Industry and Science Minister Ian Macfarlane has hammered away at the importance of applied research and research-industry links. And all the lobbies have had a chance to respond, like the way the government is now receiving submissions to its response to the Chief Scientist’s report on STEM’s role in Australia.

Everything seems to be going ok, with everybody agreeing on the overall intent. CMM thought the science community would arc up at the emphasis on applied research but not so far. Certainly the paper from the Academy of Science released yesterday made the case for basic research; “the Academy strongly reiterates the importance of ensuring an appropriate balance between basic and applied research; noting that discoveries emerging from basic research are the essential foundation of future innovation and prosperity.”

But there was no suggestion that the government should just hand over the cash and leave scientists to go where curiosity takes them. In fact the Academy likes the idea of a national plan, calling on the government to develop “a coherent and strategic approach to supporting basic research, translation of research discoveries, entrepreneurialism and business innovation through a suite of highly targeted incentives and funding programs.” Quite a few funding programmes no doubt.

CEF August B

Take it black

Staff at Murdoch U’s South Street campus looking for the communal milk in the office fridge will find there isn’t any. According to the university, operating units have to buy their own because deliveries have ceased. They won’t start again “until a new supplier” is found.

Not a beautiful set of numbers

The excellent Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute has run the numbers on the state of maths education and found the state of the discipline in higher education is not good, the number of Australians starting a maths degree is less than half the OECD average. Granted it is not getting worse – but it isn’t going to better soon.

Given maths is a foundation of so many disciplines large numbers of students do not graduate innumerate – the average number of university departments maths academics service-teach is six, engineering, computer science, IT and biological, physical and earth sciences. But AMSI does not know how many undergraduates are studying maths degrees, due to some universities not completing the 2014 survey. However using Group of Eight and Innovative Research Us as a guide the attrition rate from 1st to 3rd year is high, Go8 5280 to 695 and IRU 1287 to 67.

What is starkly clear is that at for all the efforts to woo women into the discipline, at the sharp end it’s still a bloke’s game – last year just 15 per cent of PhD completers were Australian women, another 25 per cent were female internationals.

None of these numbers is about to improve, because for all the emphasis of selling maths in schools, young people aren’t buying, with Y12 advanced maths enrolments dropping for 20 years. The figure for males is now around 14 per cent and 6 per cent for females. And what does not interest students at school is hardly likely to appeal at university. Universities appear to acquiesce in this. According to AMSI less than 15 per cent of universities require intermediate maths or better as a pre-req for science or commerce, the same for 41 per cent of engineering courses. CMM suspects a fair swag of the supply teaching university maths lecturers do is getting students up to a point where they can cope with first year subjects.

The good news is that the quality of maths teaching in schools has improved substantially over the last few years. Nearly three quarters of Year 11 and 12 maths teachers now have three years of tertiary education in maths, compared to 64 per cent in 2010. But qualified teachers without many kids to teach does not get us far.


Great Sydney tradition

CMM was beginning to wonder where University of Sydney members of the National Tertiary Education Union had got to. Since May VC Michael Spence has outlined less root and branch reform than rooted and banished structural change to the established order – without apparent complaint from anyone. But yesterday the union was out, “protesting radical restructure plans.” A Sydney tradition survives.

Melbourne never misses

If there is an Australian university that can afford to ignore MOOCs it is Melbourne, which has built the strongest brand in the country on the strength of its campus based teaching and research. But Uni Melbourne management is way too smart to miss a low cost opportunity to expand into new markets and leverage brand equity to extend awareness of its achievements. And so this month U of M is offering Paul Kofman and Sean Pinder’s,  Corporate financial decision-making for value creation on its MOOC partner Coursera’s new platform, the Global Skills Initiative, which creates programmes that meet needs identified by major corporates.

According to Coursera, the Initiative addresses the disconnect between what workers know and what employers need. “The result of these university-corporate collaborations is unprecedented open access for an unlimited number of learners to online courses directly applicable to today’s fastest-growing careers,” Coursera claims.

But is this not rather an indictment of existing business school curricula? Good question and Coursera co-founder and president Daphne Koller might (you never know) answer it when she speaks at Melbourne U, tomorrow week, details here.

mindhive 2

Less new name more old values

Federation U will introduce its new corporate campaign tomorrow, featuring staff and students talking about the particular campus , there are six, they love (CMM July 30). Apparently the university is worried by its low out of region profile. CMM suspects the launch campaign when Fed U changed its name from the University of Ballarat in 2013 is part of the problem (CMM October 2 2013). The risk with a campaign that does not focus on what a brand stands for is that no one remembers the new name because they have no reason to. No pressure UWS, or SWU, or whatever western Sydney’s university is about to start calling itself.

On-line entrapment

According to the University of Melbourne “pop culture expert” Lauren Rosewarne says, “women tend to use more words online than men and therefore have more opportunities for being deceitful.” Which strikes CMM as similar to suggesting that people who work in a bank have more chance of robbing it.

ANU June 1

Know something the world needs to know? Anonymity guaranteed but lots of questions asked, stephen4@hotkey.net.au