Geoff Prince on saving maths education: “think long-term and don’t blink”

Geoff Prince is retiring from the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute. CMM asked him for farewell thoughts.

What have I learnt after nine years leading the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute?

Mainly things that in hindsight were bleedingly obvious.

For example, getting maths prerequisites reinstated for science, engineering and commerce degrees will be contested by universities because so many enrolments depend on their absence.

That reversing our acute out-of-field teaching problem in secondary school maths will take unprecedented cooperation between the states, the Commonwealth, teacher unions and universities – code for unprecedented political leadership!

But I did know that both these structural flaws had been driving down Year 12 participation in intermediate and advanced maths participation for more than 20 years.

In other words, I have learnt that structural change is hard, will take a long time and require many advocates.

Of course, I also knew that female adult numeracy is considerably lower than that of males, unlike literacy, and that this would take generations to change. I did not realise early enough the connection between this and the fact that our children are relatively more literate than numerate.

If I had, we probably would have concentrated on mothers more in our public outreach.

How does this square against the various high profile STEM and Women in STEM campaigns that are out there, including AMSI’s own? Are they directed toward structural change? Will they achieve it? Another thing that I’ve learnt is that these campaigns get us a seat at the table to discuss structural change. Combined with AMSI’s well-founded reputation as the supplier of evidence and analysis, this public outreach has put the critical issues on the national agenda. And enlisted the strong support of chief scientists and the peak scientific and business bodies.

But most importantly, I have learnt  we have to persist long-term with public awareness and advocacy if we are to achieve structural change.

In the 1980’s the “Maths Multiples Your Choices” campaign turned around low female participation in Year 12 maths. But then it stopped – big mistake. It addressed a structural issue that needed 10 years effort, not three.

My advice to our STEM leadership – think long term and don’t blink.

© Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute 2018


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